OCEAN CITY — Perhaps providing more evidence of the cautious optimism seeping in around the resort, just when the appropriate time to begin ramping up the municipal bus deployment was a topic of discussion this week.
Little by little, there are growing signs resort officials are gaining more confidence in a return to some sense of normalcy in the coming season. Two weeks ago, Gov. Larry Hogan lifted the 10 p.m. mandated closing time for restaurants and bars. Although the St. Patrick’s Parade has been cancelled this year, the Tourism Commission last week got a look at a draft plan for a series of fireworks shows, concerts, drive-in movies and other special events planned for the summer.
That’s all welcome news for a resort business community struggling to get through the pandemic. This month, another Ocean City restaurant, Abbey Burger, announced it was closing its resort operation permanently, largely because of COVID impacts. Bourbon Street on the Beach will be relocated from its 116th Street location to the Abbey Burger site near Northside Park. There has been a steady stream of good news and bad news on the COVID front in recent weeks, but it appears from some recent discussions and actions by resort officials, a sense of optimism about the 2021 season is starting to seep in.
Such was the case during last Tuesday’s Transportation Committee meeting during a discussion about the appropriate time to begin ramping up the municipal bus deployment and schedule. The municipal bus system has taken its lumps over the last year with overall revenue down about 74%, or about $400,000.
Through much of the fall and winter, the municipal bus service has been running at a bare minimum. Transportation Director Mark Rickards explained the current deployment and when a consideration might be given to increasing it.
“Right now, we’re running 6 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. with one bus in each direction and 40-minute wait times,” he said. “We will continue that unless we see something that changes. By mid-April, we expect to be at 20 minutes when the weekends pick up.”
Public Works Director Hal Adkins said it would not be a major chore to ramp up bus deployments when the demand calls for it. The town has the drivers and buses ready to go when needed. He said it’s just difficult to have a crystal ball to predict when that demand increases.
“We’re going to keep watching it,” he said. “When we do return to some sort of normalcy, we will adjust accordingly. It’s a very flexible schedule.”
Mayor Rick Meehan cautioned against pulling the trigger too quickly on increasing deployments.
“We’re cautiously optimistic,” he said. “Maybe April is too early. Just because we have the buses and the drivers doesn’t mean we need to ramp up that early.”
However, Council Secretary and committee member Tony DeLuca said the town should enter the spring season optimistic there would be an increased demand for the municipal bus service.
“I recommend we look at it really hard in April,” he said. “I’d rather err on the side of providing good service.”
Meehan agreed there was time to follow what is going on with the COVID situation and the approach of the spring season and adjust the bus deployment schedule accordingly.
“Let’s watch it closely,” he said. “When the crowds arrive, we want to provide a level of service they are accustomed to.”
In terms of recruitment, Rickards said the transportation department has the drivers it needs right now to meet the deployment schedule and then some. It was learned some drivers are still collecting full or partial unemployment benefits because there simply isn’t enough work for them. Rickards said the recruitment process began in earnest last month and is going well thus far.
“Right now, we’re at 60, including 54 on the payroll and six more to be added,” he said. “We would like to double that number by Memorial Day, or at least by July. We’re working on expanding our recruitment campaign.”
Bartlett agreed the driver recruitment program was on schedule.
“We have done really well in getting the applications out,” he said. “It’s been a little slower process because of COVID. We’re confident we’ll have the number we need by the start of the season.”
In recent years, Ocean City has recruited and hired as many as 150 municipal bus drivers. That number was greatly curtailed last year because of the impacts of the pandemic on the bus service. DeLuca said he hoped the demand for the bus service required getting back closer to those previous years.
“The goal is 120,” he said. “I think that’s a reasonable expectation given our situation. The peak was 150 to 155, but that might not be reasonable under the current situation.”