A return to “normal” on the Jersey Shore for July 4th

In any other summer, what happened in Wildwood on Sunday wouldn’t have looked so remarkable.

A blue and yellow tram rolled over the gnarled planks of the promenade, carrying passengers who looked grateful to stand up. People would tie beach chairs on their backs and take a long, long, long walk across the sand to the shallow edge of the ocean. Children ran screaming through the arcades and strangers sat next to each other in restaurants, lost in conversation.

This has always been part of the attraction of the Shore, the promise of rediscovering familiar scenes, of being able to retrace the traces of your childhood, and also those of your parents and grandparents.

Predictability is usually not exciting. But there was a palpable sense of joy and relief at those little moments over the holiday weekend, more than a year after the COVID-19 pandemic shredded our sense of normalcy and claimed the lives of more. of 600,000 Americans.

“It’s like day and night,” said Pete Byron, mayor of Wildwood. “Last summer everyone had to wear the mask. You couldn’t eat inside. This summer, it’s pretty much back to normal.

Although only small handfuls of people can still be seen wearing masks as they strolled along the boardwalk – New Jersey lifted its indoor mask mandate in May – the pandemic was not far from it. nobody’s mind.

The virus, of course, has not gone away. Dangerous variants continue to circulate and the country has failed to meet President Joe Biden’s target of having 70% of adults vaccinated by July 4.

“If you haven’t been vaccinated,” Biden tweeted Sunday night, “please do it now. It’s the most patriotic thing you can do.

Signs on a small arcade invited passers-by to “Pound the Coronavirus” – in this case, a red punching bag that measured the power of a puncher. Joe McKee of Philadelphia walked over to the ride, loosened his shoulders and buried his right fist in the bag.

“I’ve had [the virus] two months ago, ”said the 17-year-old. “I didn’t really get sick. I just lost my sense of smell. But my whole family got it.

James Beck and his wife, Shirley, said the coronavirus didn’t stop them from visiting Wildwood last summer; they have been regular visitors for 53 years.

They continue to wear masks with them, in case they venture into overly crowded spaces, but were happy to focus more on being able to take their five great-grandchildren for a walk.

“I always go on the carousel with the little ones,” said Shirley Beck. “But, above all, we emphasize [at other rides] and say, ‘See? Pop and I used to do this.

“Now we’re not doing it,” James said, “because look at these lines! “

As a steady breeze blew across the boardwalk, Mike O’Neill walked away from the beach with his wife, Heather, and their children Abigail, 5, and Michael, 8, after already spending several hours under the Sun. The family took a day trip from Levittown.

“It really brings me back to being a kid,” said O’Neill, 48, whose childhood summers were spent in Wildwood.

As her daughter announced some activities she hoped to follow – lunch, then maybe a few rides? – O’Neill recalled the long-gone landmarks on the boardwalk: the haunted house on Morey’s Pier and the towering Dracula’s Castle at Midway Pier, which was destroyed in an arson attack in 2002.

The landscape continues to change. A Stewart’s Root Beer shop on the promenade that was driven from business by the pandemic is now Papi’s Tacos.

“We were hit pretty hard last year. People weren’t allowed to sit inside, ”said Tyler Dougherty, 18, manager at Papi’s. “Now business is pretty stable. It feels good, but it’s exhausting.

The pandemic, Byron said, had been more favorable to restaurants that were still take-out-only establishments. Now that the indoor crowds have returned, some are struggling to hire kitchen staff.

He didn’t seem to lack help inside Sam’s Pizza Palace. The iconic store had a constant flow of walk-in customers at lunchtime, and employees were counting the hours until 5 p.m., when its aqua and orange dining room usually fills to capacity.

“It’s good to see all of our repeat customers again,” said Anthony Zuccarello, whose father-in-law, Sam Spera – the store’s founder and namesake – passed away in March. “We were a little worried last year when we were limited to take out.”

Late in the afternoon, Daniel Araujo wore the face of a happily exhausted father as he led his daughters Gabriella, 12; Éliane, 11 years old; and Ty-Ty, 5, at the top of a wooden staircase that connected the beach to the promenade.

They had left their Bronx, NY home a few days earlier to spend the vacation weekend at The Shore.

“We did it all,” said Araujo, 58, laughing. “The beach, the water park, the rides. I just want a cold beer and a hot dog.

It wasn’t much to ask, not really. But then the simple pleasures now seem so much sweeter.