OCEAN CITY, Md. — As soon as they heard the news, father and daughter John and Christy Lemon knew how they would spend their Saturday. They made the short trek from the neighboring hamlet of Ocean Pines for some fresh air, some french fries from Thrasher’s and a dose of hope for the future.
Ocean City reopened its boardwalk and beach Saturday after keeping both attractions closed for almost two months to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. The resort town now is Maryland’s first noteworthy example of a slowly restarting economy and society.
“It was time for everybody to start getting out, and as long as we’re being responsible we should be able to do so,” Christy Lemon said.
The amenities technically were opened only to locals and property owners for fresh air and exercise, but Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan said last week that police would not turn away day-trippers. The town’s economy is heavily based on tourism, with a reported 8 million visitors each year.
With the high temperature barely reaching the low 50s Saturday, a scarce few explored the beach and ocean. The scene was not at all similar to the packed Florida beaches in recent weeks.
Small yellow signs and occasional radio announcements reminded joggers, dog-walkers, bicyclists and skateboarders to keep their distance from others. Most benches were blocked off with two-by-fours covered in caution tape so people couldn’t sit close together. But the pandemic guidelines didn’t keep visitors from enjoying themselves.
Bernadette Mannone walked the boardwalk with her husband, Michael Mannone, their daughter Jennifer Broedel and their three grandchildren. All six were donning large white face masks. The Mannones retired a few months ago to a house they had built in Ocean City, and Mrs. Mannone said Saturday was her first chance to visit the boardwalk and smell the ocean air.
Her daughter and granddaughters were visiting from New York state in March when COVID-19 took hold and made a return trip unsafe. “It became like a three-month stay,” Mrs. Broedel said.
The boardwalk reopening was a welcome occasion for the whole family.
“We’ve been waiting to do this,” Mrs. Mannone said. “We’ve been very conscious of staying close, staying [in] the house, taking walks around the neighborhood till we could do this.”
Some beachfront businesses, mainly eateries that were able to offer carry-out, opened for the first time this year. At one point in the afternoon, the line at Thrasher’s had at least 70 people stretched far beyond the orange traffic cones placed 6 feet apart as a social distancing guideline.
Brother and sister Tony Russo Jr. and Lisa Russo opened Tony’s Pizza to offer only whole pies and miniature pies, no individual slices or other items. They placed a table in the doorway to prevent customers from lining up inside. Down the boardwalk, proprietors of another pizzeria assembled a plexiglass shield, held together with painter’s tape, at the front counter.
But most of the T-shirt and novelty gift stores remained shuttered. The miniature golf courses and the pier’s amusement park, with its iconic Jolly Roger Ferris Wheel, were silent and empty.
That didn’t mean the beach was void of attractions. Randy Hofman beamed with joy as he returned to the beach to continue the “sand sculpture ministry” he has pursued since 1982. By midday, he was putting the finishing touches on his first sculpture of the season: Jesus emerging from the tomb with the words, “Alive Again.”
Mr. Hofman decided on an Easter-themed sculpture after the beach closure forced him to miss the important Christian holy day last month, but he found it fitting for another reason.
“I thought, that resonates because we’ve been cooped up and Ocean City’s alive again,” Mr. Hofman said. “Rick Meehan, the mayor of Ocean City, is a hero bringing Ocean City alive again finally.”
Could other parts of Maryland follow? Gov. Larry Hogan announced Wednesday that state beaches and parks were allowed to reopen and certain outdoor activities including golfing, fishing and camping could resume, but the stay-at-home order remains in effect indefinitely.
On Sunday, Maryland reached 32,587 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 1,538 deaths out of its population of roughly 6 million.
Ocean City is relatively untouched by the disease. It confirmed its first nine cases last week before the beach and boardwalk reopened. As of Sunday, authorities reported 14 cases in the town and 106 throughout Worcester County, which has an estimated population of more than 52,000.
Some boardwalk visitors hoped the Ocean City reopening might mark a turning point in Maryland’s pandemic response and a step toward a broader return to normal life.
“I hope so,” Mrs. Mannone said. “I can’t wait till we can do this on a regular basis.”