Waiting to find out what is happening at Ocean City this summer? We talked to Susan Jones from the Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association to get the latest update.
As of May 8, the Ocean City beaches and boardwalk are open, albeit with social distancing measures in place. But what happens next? How will summer tourism be affected, when will we know it’s safe to travel, and what else can we expect from goin’ down the ocean this summer.
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Welcome to Third Floor Views where we at Chesapeake Family Life talk about health, education and living with kids. I’m your host, Janet Jefferson. We are continuing with our live interview series covering the ups and downs of pandemic parenting. Today we’re talking about the status of Ocean City, Maryland. What big new changes happen this week? What is the state of tourism right now and the summer? Can families enjoy the beach and what does that even look like when you’re trying to remain safe? Here with us today is Susan Jones, Executive Director of the Ocean City Hotel Motel Restaurant Association. Thank you for being here today. Susan.
Happy to be here. I’m on the boardwalks.
I love it. Let’s get started. I know Governor Hogan came out with a lot of changes this week, specifically for Ocean City. Can you give us a rundown on what is currently open and what things are looking like?
Sure, absolutely. Over the last eight weeks, we have definitely been seeing all kinds of changes and as you know, everyone knows through this pandemic parenting that it changes by the day. So you don’t know what you’re going to go into the next day. What we are seeing currently is we only have seven hotels that are actually open. They have been opened through this. They are only accepting essential lodgers, so people like the frontline healthcare workers who may not want to go back to their own home for fear of spreading something to their own families. These seven hotels that have remained open for eight weeks are really troopers because they’ve been there for those people who do need it. There have been contractors that are staying at the hotels that are working on the roads and making sure the broadband we have is accessible. So we’ve had seven essential hotels that have been open in the initial stage. When the businesses were shut down, the carry out restaurants, there were a lot more of them in the initial stage because they had to get rid of the food that was actually in their walk-ins. So over the last eight weeks we have seen the list that normally when we first had all of this was probably around, I think if I recall correctly, it was around 80 or so restaurants, you know that dwindled down to about 40 and now it’s back up to about 60 so we do have people in the Ocean City, West Ocean City, Berlin area that are offering carry out like everybody else, the Walmart is open and the grocery stores are open. Thankfully the grocery frontline workers are there to still help us, we certainly need them. So you know the last eight weeks has been very, very quiet in Ocean City because there has not been any activity.
Right, right. So what did Governor Hogan do recently? I heard that the boardwalk and the beach are now open and what does that really mean, what’s that going to look like?
Well everyone has to keep in mind we’re still under Governor Hogan’s Executive Order, which is the Stay At Home Order. So just because Ocean City Mayor said the beach and boardwalk are open, that doesn’t mean that we are open for business. It doesn’t mean that by any stretch of the imagination what it means for us locally. And for those people who might have second homes here, who can still consider a stay at home a second home, I would suppose it means we have the opportunity to exercise on the beach and to exercise on the boardwalk. I actually don’t live in Ocean City proper. I live across the bridge. So for the last eight weeks I have not set foot on the beach or the boardwalk. And that’s been really difficult for somebody who grew up here. And you know, I love the beach. So now we actually can go on the beach and the boardwalk and enjoy looking at the ocean and smelling the fresh air. The order from Wednesday’s press conference allows us the opportunity to get out and exercise in our state parks. It also allowed the golf courses to be open. So that was a huge thing because we have a lot of people who love to golf and allowing the recreational boating and fishing is huge as well because of course we have the Bay and the ocean and in fact I can’t wait to go fishing this weekend.
That sounds great. Okay, so to get this straight, yes you can golf. Yes, you can go boating, you can walk on the boardwalk, you walk on the beach. What about taking a picnic and still social distancing making sure that you’re over six feet away from another family. But is it okay to sit on the beach or no?
Well, you know, I think in all of this we have to practice our right as Americans and be personally responsible. So if somebody is sitting on the beach having a picnic with their family, I don’t believe that anybody’s going to come up and tell them they can’t do that because we have to have a little bit of mental wellness ourselves. Right. So I think having a picnic on the beach is actually a wonderful idea. Is it allowable by the Executive Order of the Governor? I don’t know because I haven’t read the Executive Order to that fine detail, but you know the beach and the boardwalk are open so I plan to take a walk on the beach this weekend as well. We’ve got a long list of to do this weekend and then I can fish and boat.
That’s great. How long do you think this is going to continue? Like what are you really thinking this summer is going to look like? Do you think Hogan will start to ease up on restrictions? Are you thinking that the mayor is going to push for more people to get onto the beach in one way or another? What do you think’s going to happen this summer and then what do you hope and then where’s reality maybe in between that?
I wish I had a crystal ball and I wish that I knew the reality because really the uncertainty of the times has been the cause of angst for so many business owners and for the employees. Our community relies on tourism. We don’t have any smoke stacks. We have no manufacturing. We are tourism and real estate. That’s what we have here. So the livelihoods of the people who live here depend upon tourism. So if we cannot get a summer season in, then I really don’t know. I just hope that that is not the case. So I feel confident that given today’s job report and I hope that the economic reality of what we’re going through also is in the consideration of those people who are making decisions. Yes, healthcare is extremely important in this uncertain time and we are very cognizant of that because as people who live here, we also don’t want to put our residents in jeopardy of having different visitors from all over the world. Our country, I would say probably not world in this case. We’re a little nervous about that too. So there has to be a fine line. And again, I think that’s where we have to think about personal responsibility and maintaining the social distancing. So what I hope to see for the summer is now that we have a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel through the beach and boardwalk being open and the ability to golf and fish and boat. I feel like in watching Governor Hogan’s press conference on Wednesday, he mentioned that the healthcare workers who are on his task force are comfortable with the plan that he has laid out and that we have adequate hospital capacity. Now we have adequate testing. So in digging deeper into what he said on Wednesday, my hope is that the stay at home order will be lifted and we will enter phase one hopefully in a week or so. And then from everything I’m reading it looks like phase one is a couple of weeks to three weeks and then we’ll enter into phase two. Of course everything depends on if we have some sort of crazy spikes. So you know, the hope would be that by July I’d say mid June we be entering phase two. Phase two will make the restaurants maintain the distance of the tables from what we’ve been told. Again, we’ve not seen any official guidance and that makes it very difficult to open a business when you don’t have operational guidelines in your hands yet. So we’re hoping that we would see that phase two by mid June and maybe July 4th will be the kickoff to the summer. Who knows.
Okay, well that’s sounds promising. We talked about it briefly, but what are you expecting from tourists in terms of how to maintain safety measures and then what is Ocean City providing to help maintain both safety measures for the residents of Ocean City, but then also the visitors?
We became really active early on as a community, so we realized when the stay at home order or the first executive order hit, I think it was the 16th of March, we knew immediately that as a community we only have tourism and we only have June, July and August to make profits that will carry us through 12 months of living. So early on when that happened, we said to ourselves, okay, we have to sit down and figure out what we can do as a community, to really think about safety. So if people are going to want to have that, the transparency of safety, then we need to put forth some guidelines that we could suggest on what we could do in our own business community to show people that we’re doing things to get ready. So before there were ever any sort of official tasks force form, we formed our own little ocean city recovery task force to talk about issues. We talked about things like in a restaurant, what can you do to be safer? Do you put up the plexiglass between the booths? Do you put up the plexiglass at a carry out counter in a hotel? Do you put the hand sanitizing stations at every elevator entrance? So things like that that we saw on the CDC website, we said to ourselves, what can we do as a local business community to really affect the safety of the guests? Because we know that we’re not going to see visitors flood in immediately because there has to be some sort of comfort level that we’re doing everything we can to make it a safe place to visit. So, you know, early on we formed that ocean city recovery task force to talk about things like this. And then as the weeks went on and then we have the State Tourism Industry Sector task force. So ocean city folks sat on some of those task force and we’ve been helping to shape some of those guidelines. And we’ve worked with our local health department. Our Worcester County Health Department, we have a great relationship with them. And you know, we sent our guidelines to Becky and she said, Oh yes, you know, this would be suitable for our health department to say that makes sense. And yes, it’s doable from a business standpoint. And yes, as a health professional we feel that would protect the consumer. So we’ve just really been trying to collaborate with every single source that we can. And then we’ve also been trying to communicate that to our local residents so that they would feel safe with people coming into our community.
That makes a lot of sense. So I’m hearing hand sanitizer, plexiglass and masks. Are you expecting visitors to be wearing masks, especially earlier on in these phases?
I think that’s all going to come out in the operational guidelines from the state task force that we’re waiting for that we still haven’t seen yet.
What’s the expected release date for that? Do you know?
I wish I knew. Like yesterday is when I wanted it and that’s kind of the thing that we have to think about too. So if all of a sudden the stay at home order is lifted in a week, well it takes time to put these procedures into place to order the masks, to order the sanitation stations, to train the staff on how to do it, to even get the staff to come back to work. It’s a whole other issue. So we’ve been trying to work through all of those things in terms of expecting the guest wear the mask. We want our employees to be safe. We don’t want our employees to feel like they can’t come to work. So it’s probably going to be a comfort level of what the visitors feel comfortable doing and what the business owners feel. They want to put their employees where they want to put their employees. We actually have a local company down in Pocomoke called Hardwire, and she just sent me these shields. They manufacture a bulletproof vest for teachers. They do bridge armory, Bulletproof things for bridges, really all kinds of things that are protective. So they’ve transitioned into a face shield manufacturing plant right now, and they have these face shields that can have the ocean city logo on the top of them as well. Hopefully we’re working on that still, but the face shield itself is made, it’s in production. And the face shields would allow the employees to have a shield and not wear a mask because then you could see them smile. We’re in the business of people. We want to smile, we want to welcome people. So you know, the mask is not going to show that smile. So I personally don’t love the mask, but if it’s something we have to do to open up, we’re going to do it. We’re waiting on the guidelines is the answer to that question.
I love the creativity. I love the creativity and the nimbleness that even though they were thrown in this situation that no one’s ever experienced before, I feel like there’s a lot of things that have come out of it. Like who would’ve thought that someone who would produce a Bulletproof vest is now going to be making face shields with the ocean city logo on it? I love it.
Taking kids from our local high school who are pretty much sitting around doing nothing and local college kids and the kids are going down there and making a hundred, two hundred hundred bucks a day to make these masks. That’s great.
Let’s talk a little bit more about that. So ocean city has been a great source of seasonal jobs in the past, especially for young people. Maybe high school kids, college kids, but even locals, it’s a boom in the summer. So what does this look like in terms of jobs? Are those jobs going to be there this summer and how is that going to work?
Again, a very good question that we don’t know the exact answer to, but typically ocean city sees about 12,000 seasonal jobs. So in the past we have had about 4,500 of those jobs being filled by what’s called a J-1 Summer Work Travel Student. And those students are from countries all over the globe that come here on sponsor programs through the Department of State to help us fill those seasonal jobs while they’re getting a cultural experience here in America. We give them welcome parties at pools, we take them to the Shorebird game. So it’s all about showing them our culture as well. So you know, that program is still up in the air. We’re not sure what we’re going to do with that quite yet because we have not been told by the Department of State what’s going to happen there. So what is happening, and that was one of the recovery teams early on missions was employees, what can we do? One thing that we have been talking about, a couple different things, but one thing is we have to realize that all these travel baseball teams, the travel lacrosse teams, they’re probably not going to be a reality this summer. So a lot of our local kids used to be in those travel teams and didn’t work in the summer. So we’re going to have some kids from that segment that will be able to work. And then we have some people who have restaurants whose kids, they’re going to hire the whole team to work in their restaurant because the team can still be together, but they’ll be working, they won’t be playing lacrosse. So I’ve heard that one, which is interesting. And then local colleges, we’ve been putting out information to University of Maryland, Eastern Shore, Salisbury University, Warwick Community College to colleges all over the state and in our mid Atlantic region to let them know that there probably will be jobs available here for their students. So we’re hoping to make that connection. We’ve also been talking to Shore Transit, Transit and the Tri-County Council, which is a collaboration between the lower Eastern shore counties. And you know, we’re trying to say, are there employees who are down in the South part of the County that maybe don’t have transportation to get to the North part of the County where we are and how can we collaborate to have free transportation for the summer? And maybe one step further. Do we have free housing for people and can we somehow match that all up? So those are all conversations that are happening right now and we just have to continue to follow that. But at the moment, one of the other things is making sure that we’re able to get people off of the unemployment benefits that have been given out because from a federal standpoint, they’ve been very generous and rightfully so in many cases. But we’re fearful that that is going to cause people not to want to come back to work. So that was one of our issues early on that we’ve been talking about as well.
That’s an interesting challenge with lots of issues. What is the mood right now in ocean city? How are businesses doing? Are they sort of looking forward with optimism and hopefulness or is it a really sort of dark, scary place and where do you envision a lot of businesses being able to open back up or do you think there are going to be a lot of businesses that aren’t going to be able to make it?
Well, I would say if you asked me this question on Monday, there was a lot of crankiness, a lot of we’re so exhausted. We are tired of the PPP, the EIDM, the SBA, all these loans and programs and they’re changing the rules daily. In fact, I just got a call from an accountant who gave me another change to one of the PPP rules. So because the rules continually evolve, there is a lot of exhaustion on keeping up with what exactly is the correct information and how do we get the correct information out to all the businesses. So the mood on Monday, and really for the last, I’m going to have to be honest, eight weeks, is tired. We’re all tired because the people who are working in the carry out restaurants have been the owners. They don’t have a whole staff that they can call back. So they’ve been putting in all the hours. That being said, after Governor Hogan conference on Wednesday, we did sort of take a deep breath and we saw that maybe there was a light at the end of the tunnel. And I gotta tell you, when I get on my boat this weekend, I’m going to have a real happy smile on my face. And I think that our optimism is returning. It’s cautious optimism, obviously. But I feel now that everybody understands all of the different parameters that go into the decision making. It took a while to get there, but I think that now we see that we can still have a summer.
That’s great. Do you think that most businesses will be able to reopen?
I would venture to say the majority have been able to weather the storm. I will also say there’ll be some who probably didn’t. We have a lot of old families in ocean city that have been here for generation after generation. So you know, if they don’t have this enormous mortgage or this landlord payment to make, then some of those guys probably will fare better than newer owners. But you know, entrepreneurs and business people are very resourceful and they tend to get creative when they need to. In fact, one of our local businesses, he created his business. He used to be a banker and he created his business after the 2008 recession and he lost his job at that time. So now he has a thriving restaurant. He’s figured out how to make this all work and he’s going to be opening a second location. So you know, there will be some success stories out of all of this, but it’s just those challenging times that make people question every move and evaluate everything that they are doing. And I think one of the best things, I know for me personally, my kids are 19 and 21 they’re both in college. And it has made them move home. We had to go to Towson and move my daughter out of her freshmen dorm and that was not easy to move her out of her dorm on her freshman year. It was awful. We were crying, all of us.Then my other daughter goes to Salisbury, so she moved home. So it’s been actually pretty fun watching them connect over these last eight weeks more than they’ve ever connected and we’ve had fun having them at home. So it’s a different world. I don’t know. In your case, your three year old and six month old it might be a little noisier in your house.
It’s a little loud, but love those two to pieces so wouldn’t trade it for anything. Do you think ocean city’s going to look different after this experience?
I think there will be some differences, yes. What I would say is probably one of the things that I suggest people do is evaluate your own family. You know, take a digital detox. You’ve been stuck on your phone, on your computer, you’re Zooming in, you’re Zooming out. You said your three year old was Zooming and I think it’s really an opportunity to take a digital detox and go sit out on the beach with your family, put up the umbrella and play in the sand with your kids. Don’t take your phone and take pictures of them and post it on Instagram. Don’t do that. Leave your phone in your bag and enjoy the experience of not having your phone and build a sand castle and jump waves. And I really think that we are situated in a good spot because we are in driving distance to a lot of destinations to a lot of people and we have so many outdoor activities. So I think outdoor activities are really going to be the key to getting people moving around. But it will be different in terms of the number of people. I don’t think that we’re going to have summers like we’ve had in the past where we have the massive crowds and the the lines going around the block at Secrets. You know, I don’t think we’re going to see that because people are not 100% to travel yet. So I think it’s really going to be our job to make them aware of what we’re doing in the hotels and in the restaurants and in the attractions to make it sanitary and to have the hygiene in place and the practices and procedures in place. One of the things that probably will be most different could be something like in your hotel, you might not get daily maid service because the hotel might not have enough staff, which is a huge reality. And they might not want to put their maid in the room of the guest overnight. So it could be that you don’t have maid service every day. You might have to exchange your towels at the front desk or you might have your towels dropped off in a trash bag at your door. And we might just sanitize the room doing the whole entire procedure between guests checkout rather than doing it every day. So those would be some of the differences that I would see. And, and then with the restaurants, you know, phase two is tables that are six feet apart. So when you go in a restaurant and sit down to eat, the tables will be very spread out.
So it sounds like this is all very doable, but it will look different. So some things for us to think about and make adjustments. My last question for you, Susan, is what can families do to help support ocean city right now?
One of the things actually we did early on was we created a gift card promotion. So if you go on our site, which is OCvisitor.com you will see on the home page there’s four screens that rotate and one of them talks about gift cards. So we have members from hotels and restaurants. For example, the shark, she was one of the first ones to sign up. And if you buy a hundred dollar gift card, it is actually worth $125. There’s a gift card program. I would also say that when it is time to travel to feel comfortable and come down and get the carry out from the restaurant and sit on the beach and have the carry out picnic with your family and stay overnight for a night or two and just take time to enjoy the great outdoors here in ocean city and rent a paddle board or kayak or whatever you might want to do. But there’s lots of outdoor activity and we’ve got some really great trails and our state parks in Assateague, you can look at the ponies. Plenty of things to do, but I think to support ocean city, that gift card purchases is a good place to start and it doesn’t have to be from the people who are on my list. Obviously just gift cards in general and a lot of people do have deals going on where they’re offering more value than the face value of what you purchase and just taking the time to come down.
That’s a great suggestion. And really ocean city does sound well set up with offering so many outdoor activities, which is one of the safest ways that we can interact with each other and the outdoors. Well, thank you so much, Susan, for talking us today and addressing some of our questions that we had about tourism and ocean city and the current state of policies as they’re constantly changing. Thank you so much to all of our viewers and listeners today, make sure you visit Chesapeakefamily.com for up to date, local information on home, health and living for today’s Maryland parent. We love to hear your thoughts, comments, and questions. If you enjoyed what you heard today, check out more at thirdfloorviews.com. I’m Janet Jefferson. This is Third Floor Views. Thank you for listening.
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