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March 24, 2020

Seaside Heights mayor shuts down all beaches as N.J. clamps down to combat coronavirus

As COVID-19 spreads in New Jersey, could more shore towns take similar action?

Government Beaches
Seaside Heights Coronavirus Hypnotica Studios Infinite/Creative Commons

Seaside Heights Mayor Anthony Vaz shuttered the Jersey Shore town's beaches to the public until further notice to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. As warm weather moves into the region, towns along the New Jersey coast may be forced to make difficult decisions in response to the state's intensifying spread of COVID-19.

In a preemptive move to prevent gatherings at beaches, Seaside Heights Mayor Anthony Vaz took action on Monday to shut down all of his Jersey Shore town's ocean and bay beaches until further notice, due to the coronavirus pandemic.

In a statement on Facebook, Vaz said all of the beach crossover gates have been locked. Amusements and non-essential businesses on the boardwalk are closed.

"I anticipate that as the weather improves at the end of this week and beyond, and we start experiencing more moderate and warm temperatures, people will be tempted to get in their cars and cross the bridge onto the barrier island," Vaz said. "Closing the beaches is intended to serve as a disincentive for people to violate the Governor’s executive orders and his very strong public comments that directs all of us to stay home."

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy joined several other states, including Pennsylvania, in issuing stay-at-home orders to prevent the spread of THE coronavirus. New Jersey saw a surge in positive tests early this week, reaching 2,844 cases and 27 COVID-19 deaths on Tuesday. The state now has the second highest number of coronavirus cases in the country, behind New York.

Ocean County, where Seaside Heights is located, currently is the southernmost county reporting more than 100 people with COVID-19.

"If you are from out of town, please walk and exercise in your own neighborhoods," Vaz continued in his statement about the beaches. "If you have a summer home in Seaside Heights, please stay at your primary home wherever that may be."

The measure to close the beaches comes after Cape May County Freeholder Director Gerald Thornton last week urged visitors to avoid the Jersey Shore towns in in his county for at least the next several weeks.

Outdoor exercise has generally been regarded as a safe activity when social distancing is practiced. At beaches, the annual appeal and tradition of shore travel poses a unique risk for coastal towns with already limited medical capacities. 

Images of droves of spring breakers gathered on Florida beaches last week — some later testing positive for COVID-19 — provided a glimpse of the kind of scene that could take place in New Jersey if townships show reluctance to take precautions as the situation develops.

  • SYMPTOMS: Coronavirus vs. Other respiratory illnesses
      • Fever, cough, shortness of breath
      • Itchy eyes, stuffy nose, sneezing
      • Fever, cough, body aches, fatigue, chills, headache and possibly sneezing, stuffy nose and a sore throat
      • Sneezing, stuffy nose, sore throat and possibly coughing, slight aches, fatigue, fever
  • Anyone with coronavirus symptoms should stay home and call their doctor. More information can be found on the CDC's website. Philly residents can text "COVIDPHL" to 888777 for updates on the coronavirus, and anyone in Greater Philadelphia can call the coronavirus hotline at 800-722-7112.

Vaz stressed that closing Seaside Heights' beaches will also protect police officers, firefighters, EMS personnel and front office employees from interacting with the public any more than is necessary.

Murphy and Attorney General Gurbir Grewal expressed growing frustration this week about New Jersey residents failing to take seriously the state's warnings against gathering. Both vowed enforcement and punishment for those who violated the order.

In Pennsgrove on Monday, police broke up a gathering of more than 30 adults who violated the governor's orders. The tenant was charged with a disorderly persons offense.

In Lakewood Township last Tuesday, two weddings were broken up by authorities after the public was told not to hold large gatherings. The state's total count of COVID-19 cases at the time was just 427.

The New Jersey Treasury on Tuesday froze nearly $1 billion in spending on programs that support colleges, home owners, seniors and victims of crime, among others. The measure was taken to ensure sufficient funding for emergency budgetary authority.

With uncertainty about the course of the pandemic in the United States — now considered a possible epicenter by the World Health Organization — policies surrounding New Jersey's beaches will increasingly leave towns with critical choices to make for the season ahead.