The whole thing was mixed up.
Shiloh Waldron was ready for Memorial Day weekend to start. Here she was, on the beach at Seaside Heights, sitting on a towel and wearing sunglasses. But the sun was hidden behind clouds, the wind blew cold, and the beach was misty with rain.
Waldron watched her son in the ocean, learning to surf. Surfing at Seaside Heights was banned until recently, but this weekend it’s legal. Or at least Waldron hoped it was. To be honest, she wasn’t totally sure. Above her head, a red flag flapped in the wind. The flag warned everyone that swimming in the ocean was banned.
“So wait. Surfing is allowed, but swimming is not? Explain that to me,” said Waldron, from Bloomfield. “There’s no rhyme or reason. It’s really confusing.”
If you watch the television news or Gov. Phil Murphy’s daily press briefing on COVID-19, you will hear that Memorial Day weekend at the Jersey Shore started off fine. Maybe it was the morning rain. Maybe it was fear of catching COVID-19.
Whatever the reason, this Saturday the hordes of people who normally descend on Seaside Heights for the traditional start to the Jersey Shore summer season stayed away.
“This is maybe 1% of the crowd you saw here on the same day last year,” said Anthony Stefaneli, of Toms River. “It’s pathetic.”
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Those who did brave the pandemic for a day on the shore had no trouble keeping their distance. Instead of getting pushed along by the slow-moving avalanche of bodies, a person walking the boardwalk at Seaside Heights this Saturday had room to swing both arms, spin around or hobble slowly along, undisturbed.
“I’ve never seen it like this,” said Kristie Baviello, 27, of Hoboken. “It’s eerie and weird.”
So yes, the shore looked safe. But when people stopped to talk, one began to notice a quiet and new type of danger: total, utter confusion.
Is surfing banned? Do vaccines kill? Is Stefaneli immune to COVID-19 because he’s only 37? Do children really need to wear masks? Do 8-year-olds? Do grandparents? Will COVID-19 magically evolve into some harmless nuisance, like a lion morphing into a house cat?
Maybe. Maybe not. Who can know?
To walk the beach and boardwalk at Seaside Heights on Saturday was to walk the frontier of the Enlightenment. Here the Casino Pier Ferris wheel and the green roller coaster and all the stucco motels perch on the shifting sand of a barrier island, in defiance of hurricanes and the sea, thanks only to 500 years of math and engineering and the slow iterations of the scientific process.
Yet like a tribe of camel herders emerging from a desert sandstorm to find their path blocked by the Pyramids of Giza, many people who walked among the boardwalk’s attractions on Saturday seemed skeptical of the very process by which these monuments to human innovation were made.
“If they do come up with a vaccine for COVID, I don’t trust it. None of us have gotten the flu shot. Vaccines are scary,” said Jim Sorrentino, of Secaucus. “We have to end this shutdown. Give me liberty or give me death.”
“That may mean we have liberty AND death,” said Sorrentino’s son Saxon, who lives in Bloomfield. “But hey. It’s in God’s hands.”
On the boardwalk, plenty of people seemed to agree with the Sorrentinos. Only a tiny fraction of beachgoers on Saturday wore masks. Even Ocean County sheriff’s deputies and Seaside Heights code enforcement agents rode together in cars and enclosed ATV’s with no masks in sight.
“What kind of example is that?” said Pattie Lynch, of Toms River. “How can the police and sheriffs tell people to wear a mask if they don’t even have one?”
Many said they welcome COVID-19 to strike again. Some of these people are young. Others are not. Every one of them knows several people who’ve died from the disease.
“I feel like things shouldn’t be closed. We’re going to have a second outbreak anyways,” said Matt Michalski, 18, of Hawthorne. Several of his parents’ friends died of COVID-19 in recent weeks. “We should just get it started,” he said.
“My best friend from childhood died from COVID on April 15. My cousin passed away, too,” said Marisa Sorrentino, 66, Jim’s wife. “But the Jersey Shore, you can’t keep it down. We have to reopen.”
“I think people are just going to get it,” said Lynch, 64. “I wish I’d get it already, and be over with it.”
“I can’t afford to get it,” said Lynch’s husband Patrick, 63, who sat on a bench beside his wife. “I have a compromised immune system.”
“Yeah,” Pattie said. “I can’t give it to him.”
Others had similar difficulty understanding the potential consequences of their actions. Sitting on a wooden fence by the boardwalk, Stefaneli considered the warnings from scientists that to slow the spread of COVID-19, everyone in public should wear masks when keeping distance is impossible.
He thought they were full of it. So are journalists who repeat what the scientists say.
“I’m 37 years old. If I get it, I get it,” he said. “The chance of me dying is like .003%. I think the media is putting the fear of God into everybody.”
Just then, a family of two parents and two not-yet-teenage daughters walked by. All wore masks.
“Look at that. You see 8-year-old kids wearing masks,” Stefaneli said. “Kids shouldn’t be subjected to this.”
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Even people who try to follow the rules find it hard, several said. Each town along the Jersey Shore sets its own safety rules, which seem to change every week. Guidelines from Murphy about how municipalities should keep people safe are vague or nonexistent.
Many people on the boardwalk said they didn’t know which media outlets, scientists or government officials to trust.
“I don’t know what the rules are, to be honest,” said Baviello.
“The best scenario is we learn the virus mutates into nothing,” Jim Sorrentino said. “Maybe it will just go away.”
Only a handful of people said they understand the rules. Even fewer seemed to care. Sitting on a bench by the boardwalk, Michael Ford and his wife wore yellow matching surgical masks.
“People are still dying. The disease is still here,” said Ford, of Union County. “We’ve got to take responsibility for ourselves so more people don’t die.”