The summer of 2020 at the Jersey Shore was unlike any other.

Crowds flocked to beaches, desperate for fresh air amid the coronavirus pandemic. Finding a spot on the sand was like a game of musical chairs in a number of coastal towns. And some used drones to monitor social distancing from above and limit visitors.

But how did the pandemic affect beach badge revenues?

Last summer, 27 municipalities along the coast collected more money from tag sales compared to the summer prior, while nine saw decreases, according to an analysis of data NJ Advance Media collected from towns along the coast in Monmouth, Ocean, Atlantic and Cape May counties.

The numbers include daily, weekly and seasonal rates and exclude privately-owned and operated beaches, like Point Pleasant Beach, as well as state-owned beaches. Others, like the Wildwoods or Atlantic City, are free. At least 11 of 36 towns NJ Advance Media surveyed increased beach badge prices in 2020.

Whether a town saw a rise or reduction in tag revenues was partly impacted by how local officials handled crowds on their beaches. Gov. Phil Murphy’s coronavirus rules left crowd management to individual municipalities. Local authorities were required to either limit daily and seasonal beach tag sales or have limits of some sort on beach access but didn’t need to do both.

Mike Cerra, director of the New Jersey League of Municipalities, said one reason some towns saw big increases may have been because beachgoers headed to the towns with more relaxed rules.

“If you’re shut out of one location, you’re probably going to choose the nearest viable location as an alternative. I’m sure that is a factor in it,” said Mike Cerra, director of the New Jersey League of Municipalities.

The towns that made money

In Manasquan, the city collected $775,000 more from those little plastic badges than in 2019— the second-highest increase in the state.

Mike Mangan, borough council member, says a high interest in finding ways to be outside safely during lockdown in the spring helped lead to the big spike in sales before the summer season even began. Tourism industry leaders have said travel bans to other countries, and general uneasiness about boarding planes for long distance flight, left many people staying close to home for vacation.

The city announced it would stop selling all badges from May 15 to the second week of June so officials could assess how many visitors could safely fit on its beaches. As a result, people rushed to buy seasonal tags, which had gone up in price by $5 to $85 for the season.

“We sold more seasonal badges prior to the season opening than we have ever done in history,” Mangan said. “That was the main source of the spike in revenue you saw. (But) even though we had record sales prior to the start of the season, not all of those people ended up accessing the beach at the same time.”

Restrictions were in place to maintain social distancing. In June, the city began selling daily tags again, but monitored each of its 17 beaches and closed certain entrances down before too many people became crammed into one spot. Halfway through the season, he said, they began limiting tag sales to 1,000 per day.

A portion of the revenue was dedicated to COVID-19 safety protocols, he said. For example, the city spent $10,000 to purchase fully enclosed ticket booths with plastic partitions for badge checkers to use.

Belmar and Long Branch saw the biggest increases in beach tag revenues with Belmar bringing in an additional $1.4 million and Long Branch $1.17 million more than the year before.

Long lines — sometimes three hours long — for seasonal tag sales were seen on the Belmar boardwalk at the start of the season.

In Long Branch, the city did not limit beach tag sales, and instead blocked off beach access points when certain areas became too crowded. Local authorities previously said the main issue they faced was throngs of people flocking to the popular beach near Pier Village, and capping badge sales would not solve that problem.

Labor Day at the beach

Labor Day down the shore in Long Branch, N.J. September, 7, 2020 Ed Murray | NJ Advance Media for

Brigantine also saw more sales, despite the city’s fees remaining the same. The city’s tag revenues rose by nearly $250,000 in 2020.

Mayor Vince Cera said the city is lucky to have large beaches for people to social distance, with over five miles of sand.

“The beach had been a place where people could have some type of normalcy in their lives,” he said. “It was noticeably busier… but people did a good job spreading out.”

The ones that lost money

While the summer was a blockbuster for many towns, for others, it was a bust.

Asbury Park saw the biggest drop in beach badge sales, from $2.6 million collected in 2019 to $1.9 million in 2020. Revenues decreased by a little over $700,000. The city limited capped daily beach passes at 3,000 to 3,500 per day sold through the Viply app and 200 to 400 sold in person at the city’s beach office, said Asbury Park’s Chief Financial Officer JoAnn Boos.

Avon-by-the-Sea — a half-a-square-mile town — had the third-largest decrease, collecting $175,000 less.

The sale of beach badges was temporarily suspended in May. After sales began again, the borough limited daily badges to 1,500 per day in order to keep the beaches at 50% capacity, said borough administrator Kerry McGuigan.

“Our mayors and commissioners felt the need to keep everyone that comes to the beach safe and they felt that in doing that, the beach was manageable and safe for people to enjoy,” McGuigan said.

In Avalon, revenue was also down by $133,000 compared to 2019.

That’s, in part, because the borough waived its beach pass requirement until July 4 due to uncertainty surrounding the pandemic’s impact on the summer and to cut down on hand-to-hand exchanges, said borough spokesman Scott Wahl.

“We were in the period of much uncertainty of what would remain open for the summer, and we were cautious not to charge for a beach tag in a likely event that beaches may have to be closed for public health reasons,” Wahl said in an email. “We wanted to make sure if people bought a tag, they would have a reasonable expectation the beaches would be open for the summer to provide the value of the purchase.”

Lessons learned for 2021

The summer is approaching again, and local officials plan to apply the lessons they learned from last year.

In Manasquan, Mangan said one of the biggest takeaways was that cutting the number of daily passes sold helped greatly with crowd control. The city started off without daily limits, but instituted them toward the middle of the summer. The move made it easier for beach patrols to monitor social distancing.

The borough of Deal, which made almost two times more in beach pass revenue last year compared to 2019 and didn’t raise prices, likely won’t change its operations unless the governor adds rules surrounding control crowds, said borough administrator Stephen Carasio.

He said the borough may have seen such high sales because nearby towns, like Asbury Park and Long Branch, were hitting their visitor limits and shutting down access, so people headed to nearby Deal. A beach replenishment project from a few years ago meant Deal’s beaches were wide enough to easily socially distance, he said.

“It’s going to depend on (Governor Murphy). If he decides ‘Hey, last year worked well…’ (then) I can see us maintaining that,” Carasia said.

Looking ahead, Mangan says, questions remain over whether demand for a spot on the sand will go up or down.

Mangan has two predictions: Either people with cabin fever from a long winter indoors head to the Jersey Shore in droves once 80-degree weather arrives, or there will still be fears of large gatherings.

“The burning question we all have now is with the vaccine distribution, does it mean that beach attendance goes go up or down? Does demand continue to increase because people have been inside all winter?” Mangan said. “Going into last summer, even though the beaches were popular, we had not all yet endured a winter inside… or are people still going to be afraid to come out and get together? We all expect it to be busy one way or another.”

Jackson predicts the higher attendance will continue in Long Branch this summer, but it won’t reach the same levels as last year, when there were more restrictions on recreation and dining. In May and part of June last year, bars and restaurants were closed for indoor and outdoor dining, malls and movie theaters were still closed and most other recreational activities were shut down.

“I think we’re still going to have numbers (but) I don’t think they’re going to be as difficult as this year. It was like the floodgates opened. Once the beach season came, people were more restricted and felt more restricted than they do now.”

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Avalon Zoppo may be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @AvalonZoppo.

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