Here's what this summer at the Jersey Shore could look like with coronavirus restrictions

The Jersey Shore’s summer tourism industry normally would be busy now hiring students, stocking up on inventory and booking reservations from visitors weary of the long winter.

a sign on the side of a building: Donovan's Reef, a landmark bar in Sea Bright, remains closed due to the coronavirus.

But as the region reels from the coronavirus, business owners are beginning to envision a season that, in one of its best cases, includes visitors lounging on the beach at least 6 feet apart from each other.

“We’re going to encourage masks,” said Daniela Barbacini, co-owner of Lucky Leo’s Sweet Shop on the Seaside Heights boardwalk.

With the region virtually locked down to slow the spread of the coronavirus, the Shore’s business owners and government leaders are beginning to envision how to salvage the summer tourism season.

For now, some seasonal business owners say they are moving forward with their plans, turning the utilities on, keeping in touch with returning employees and sprucing up the facade of their buildings. 

But Memorial Day, the unofficial start of summer, is getting closer. The number of COVID-19 cases continues to rise. And social distancing — kryptonite to the tourism industry dependent on big crowds — remains the only defense for now.

“I think it’s going to be rough sledding,” said Oliver Cooke, an economics professor at Stockton University in Galloway, adding the decline could be worse than the Great Recession.

The Shore’s tourism industry is fickle by nature, rising and falling on a weekend forecast.

But it generated more than $7 billion in sales and employed nearly 50,000 workers in 2018, according to Oxford Economics, a research firm, and business owners were poised for a strong 2020.

a store front at day: Woody's in Sea Bright has resorted to curbside pick up during the coronavirus shutdown.

The coronavirus, however, has swept through New Jersey, killing more than 4,000 residents and slamming the brakes on the state’s economy.

Bars and retailers were closed. Restaurants were confined to take-out and delivery. And workers have been laid off in droves. New Jersey lost 31,800 jobs in March alone. By comparison, the state lost 21,200 jobs in November 2008, the beginning of the Great Recession. 

Many Shore business owners are in the same boat as Beach Haus Brewery in Belmar.

The business has stayed afloat in recent weeks by offering take-out. But it had to close its tap room and deck. It sent home about a dozen of its 20 employees, although it kept the part-time workers on the payroll. And it rescheduled birthdays, bridal showers and other parties, said Steve Tichenor, events manager.

Tichenor is holding out hope. The deck, for example, is large enough to accommodate visitors and still adhere to social-distancing rules. And he has been rebooking parties for the end of May.

But part of him wonders if he is being too optimistic. A friend of his thought the Shore wouldn’t open until July, he said.

“Going real deep into the summer will be difficult,” Tichenor said. “That’s when you start to feel it.”

Elected officials are searching for a way out of the maze, but they are growing increasingly anxious. 

They have seen other states take more aggressive approaches. Notably, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis allowed some municipalities to open beaches as long as they maintained social distancing measures. But he also drew fire from public health officials who said it wasn’t yet safe.

In New Jersey, state Sen. Jim Holzapfel and Assemblymen Greg McGuckin and John Catalano, all R-Ocean, on Tuesday called on Gov. Phil Murphy to create a task force looking for ways to assist Jersey Shore residents and businesses once the stay-at-home order is lifted.

Local leaders said it won’t be as simple as flipping on a switch. They would need to hire lifeguards, police officers and parking attendants. 

Lavallette Mayor Walter LaCicero said he was confident the town’s boardwalk and newly replenished beach were wide enough that visitors could keep their distance. But that calculation would only work if other towns open their beaches, too.

If neighboring towns decide to stay closed, tiny Lavallette could be overwhelmed with visitors.

“That’s the problem,” he said. “It’s got to be a coordinated effort here.”

Seaside Heights officials are preparing for three scenarios: everything opens as usual, everything remains closed, or business comes back a little bit at a time.

The borough’s economy is based on tourism; it is seeking $2.1 million in state aid to help it weather the crisis.

But Mayor Anthony Vaz said he would remain cautious about opening, noting that residents and visitors bunched tightly together could spark a new outbreak.

“I am very anxious — as the community is — to get things back to what normal might be, but I don’t want to rush this,” Vaz said. “We don’t want to restart this pandemic and find ourselves in a worse situation.”

It leaves business owners making their best guess.

Cashelmara Inn, a bed and breakfast in Avon, has begun to get cancellations in May and June and is rescheduling customers for September. But it still is ready to accommodate visitors in case the virus recedes more quickly, said Mary Wiernasz, the inn’s manager.

The Avon Pavilion nearby has given up on its hope of opening for Mother’s Day, but it has employees standing by in case officials devise a way for customers to eat there safely, owner Rob Fishman said.

Will New Jersey rapidly develop comprehensive testing and tracing methods to safely restart the economy, giving visitors desperate for sunshine the confidence to travel? Will the state continue its shutdown into the fall to stamp out the virus once and for all? Will it offer something in between, say, forcing visitors to don personal protection equipment before being cleared to play Skee-Ball?

Barbacini at Lucky Leo’s Sweet Shop isn’t ready to concede defeat. She hopes much of her staff from last year will return, although she said she won’t have the option of hiring workers from overseas.

And when it does reopen, she expects employees will wear masks and monitor their temperatures. 

“That’s my best guesstimate right now,” Barbacini said. “Don’t hold me to it.”

Michael Diamond is a business reporter who has been writing about the New Jersey economy for more than 20 years. He can be reached at 732-643-4038; [email protected]; and @mdiamondapp on Twitter.

This article originally appeared on Asbury Park Press: Here’s what this summer at the Jersey Shore could look like with coronavirus restrictions

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Here's how coronavirus could become a pandemic—and why it matters

In the two months since the novel coronavirus was announced in China, it has expanded across the globe. Outbreaks have been reported in more than 50 countries with more than 85,000 confirmed cases and 2,900 deaths worldwide. Stock markets posted their biggest tumble since the 2008 recession this week as case counts of the virus, which causes the disease named COVID-19, rose sharply in places like Italy, Iran, and South Korea. Meanwhile, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that it’s just a matter of time before the virus thrives in America as well.

a group of people wearing costumes: A woman wearing a mask to prevent contracting the coronavirus reacts as employees from a disinfection service company sanitize a traditional market in Seoul, South Korea, February 26, 2020.

“It’s not so much a question of if this will happen anymore but rather more a question of exactly when this will happen and how many people in this country will have severe illness,” said Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, in a press briefing on Wednesday. On Saturday, Washington state announced the first U.S. death due to the novel coronavirus.

Given this globalized spread, the term “pandemic” is beginning to circulate among officials and the news media.

But public health authorities are stopping just short of officially labeling this emergency as a pandemic: In her remarks, Messonnier noted that the world is moving closer to meeting the criteria for a pandemic. Meanwhile, World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus also said this week that we’re on the precipice of a pandemic.

So what exactly is a pandemic—and what happens when a major public health agency, like the WHO, declares one? While calling this global health crisis a pandemic might not change the facts on the ground, it can stoke public fears and propel a shift in strategy toward mitigating harm.

What is a pandemic?

Global health crises tend to grow in phases. This chain of events starts with an “outbreak”—a sudden rise in confirmed cases of an disease that’s contained to a small geographic region like Wuhan. If the disease spreads just beyond that community—like how the novel coronavirus spread across China—then it becomes an epidemic.

Pandemics, according to their classical definition, are epidemics that cross international boundaries and affect a large number of people worldwide.

“It’s all about geography,” says Lauren Sauer, an assistant professor of emergency medicine and the director of operations with the Johns Hopkins Office of Critical Event Preparedness and Response. “It’s not about severity, it’s not about high versus low case counts. It’s…do we see spread across the globe?”

Not every widespread epidemic is considered a pandemic. Seasonal influenza, for example, checks those boxes—but its cyclic nature is what differentiates it from pandemic influenza, which can spread anywhere across both hemispheres regardless of the weather. (Will warming spring temperatures slow the coronavirus outbreak?)

A pandemic declaration also takes into account who is infected and where. If a person catches the coronavirus in China and travels back to their home country, they do not count toward the tally that ultimately decides a pandemic declaration—and neither does anyone they infect. Sauer says these constraints arose out of the lessons learned during the H1N1 pandemic in 2009, when the ease of global travel made it seem like the disease was spreading faster and more widely than it was. (Here’s how coronavirus spikes outside China show that travel bans aren’t working.)

Instead, public health authorities are looking for local transmission of COVID-19. That’s the stage where the virus begins spreading outside of China among people who have not recently traveled to the Asian nation. Early in an epidemic, most of those cases can be traced to travelers from the outbreak’s original site, in this case China. But as local transmission progresses, that contact tracing breaks down. At this turning point, the coronavirus can spread unnoticed, making it extremely difficult to control.

Some public health experts argue that the novel coronavirus has already achieved pandemic status when measured against these definitions: Cases have been confirmed on six continents, including 2,300 in South Korea and 650 in Italy. In many of the countries, outbreaks are being sustained locally, with the latest examples simmering in California, Oregon, and Washington.

On Saturday, Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the CDC, said the fatal case in Washington could not be traced to a known infected patient nor to a traveler from China. Meanwhile, the White House announced 14-day bans for any foreign nationals who have traveled through Iran, while the State Department issued its highest possible warning for travel to parts of Italy and South Korea. President Donald Trump said he is considering additional travel restrictions for the border with Mexico, even though the southern neighbor has only two confirmed cases versus the 62 reported in the U.S.

So what is stopping the WHO from calling this epidemic a pandemic? “In reality, it’s semantics,” Sauer says. “But semantics become important when you’re talking to the general public about these issues.”

Why pandemics do—and don’t—matter

Words matter. In a press briefing on Wednesday, director-general Ghebreyesus urged caution against rushing to cry “pandemic.”

“Using the word pandemic carelessly has no tangible benefit, but it does have significant risk in terms of amplifying unnecessary and unjustified fear and stigma, and paralyzing systems,” he said.

Lawrence Gostin, a Georgetown University professor who is also director of the World Health Organization Collaborating Center on National and Global Health Law, highlights that “panic” is literally in the word “pandemic.”

In 2009, people around the world panicked when the WHO described H1N1 influenza as a pandemic, Gostin says, and then the organization was later criticized for raising public alarm when the virus turned out to not be very lethal. H1N1 now returns seasonally and is part of our annual vaccine preparations.

“So the fact that this may become a pandemic is certainly a concern because this is much more deadly than the flu,” Gostin says, “but it’s something we’ll want to delay as long as possible until we get a vaccine, which should probably be within 12 to 18 months.” (Learn about how coronavirus compares to flu, Ebola, and other major outbreaks.)

From a legal standpoint, though, it doesn’t matter whether the WHO calls this a pandemic or not.

Gostin—who points out that the WHO doesn’t even actually “declare” pandemics—says the organization has already declared something far more significant: a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC). That declaration legally allows the WHO to make recommendations on how member countries should handle an epidemic. It also mobilizes funding and political support.

So, what happens if COVID-19 is called a pandemic?

While “pandemic” might be merely a label without legal significance, it does have its value. A pandemic signifies that authorities no longer believe they can contain the spread of the virus and must move to mitigation strategies, like closing schools and canceling mass gatherings.

This is precisely why some public health experts argue that the WHO and other global agencies should go ahead and make the call, Sauer says. The sooner that public health authorities and first responders transition to mitigation measures—like the ones we see each year with the flu—the better.

In the U.S., the CDC has already shared its strategy for protecting communities in light of a coronavirus pandemic. It includes “social distancing measures” like closing schools and recommending telework to prevent infected people from spreading the disease to their classmates and colleagues. Events and mass gatherings could be postponed or even canceled. Even this summer’s Tokyo Olympics could be canceled if conditions seem too dangerous. And the CDC would advise delaying elective surgeries to ensure the availability of hospital beds.

Gostin says these social distancing measures are not something that a public health organization would recommend lightly as they impact families, communities, and economies.

“Kids still have to be educated, their parents still have to be able to go to work, and people want to get out and enjoy themselves as well,” Gostin says. “So it’s not something that we’d want to do. Only if it was necessary.”

Individuals can also take preventive measures of their own, including regularly washing their hands, covering their sneezes, and wiping down surfaces.

But Gostin says there’s one thing people really need to remember if the WHO starts calling this a pandemic: “It’s important not to panic.”

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated with the news of the first U.S. death, additional instances of local transmission in the U.S., and the travel restrictions implemented on Saturday, February 29. The story was originally published on February 28. 

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