BETHANY BEACH, Del. — It’s noonish on a Friday in mid-July and this quaint beach town is bubbling to life.
A steady parade of cars crawls alongside the two-block long jumble of shops and restaurants leading to the beach. Face-mask-wearing couples, families and clutches of young women stroll down wide, brick-accent sidewalks in leisurely intervals.
And Mango’s, the town’s trendy beachfront restaurant, already has drawn a handful of patrons to its 348-seat dining area and 70-seat patio.
Not bad for a mostly sunny beach day in the time of coronavirus.
Except that on a normal summer Friday in any other year, the cars on Garfield Place would be at a virtual standstill, the sidewalks an ever-flowing river of beachgoers. And Mango’s would be packed as it kicks off a weekend-long party.
Restaurants and stores across the U.S. are fighting to stay in business amid COVID-19 spikes and sharply reduced sales as many patrons shy away out of contagion fears or capacity limits. But few merchants are under fire like those in America’s beach towns, which earn the vast majority of their annual sales from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
The stakes are higher, the losses, amplified.
“Our businesses have 12 weeks to make money to survive the rest of the year,” says Lauren Weaver, executive director of the Bethany-Fenwick Chamber of Commerce, noting that sales for the town’s 75 or so beach-district merchants are down 40% to 70% compared with a year ago. “A lot of them are not going to survive.”
Typically, the weather makes or breaks a beach town’s fortunes. Nowadays, it’s area virus outbreaks, ever-changing government mandates and lingering supply shortages. In Bethany, some shops are trying outside-the-box strategies to make up lost revenue before the summer fades away.
Other beach communities are in more dire shape. Governors in California, Florida and Texas closed many beaches this month amid infection surges.
Store, restaurant and amusement park sales in Seaside Heights, New Jersey, are down more than 50% versus last summer, in part because Gov. Phil Murphy abruptly scrapped plans to let restaurants reopen for indoor dining in late June following COVID-19 surges in other states, says Michael Redpath, head of the Seaside Heights Business Improvement District
Others are faring surprisingly well. Revenue for merchants in Ocean City, Maryland, is down just 20% to 25%, says Susan Jones, head of the Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association. She partly credits the city’s decision to reopen its beaches relatively early in mid-May and mount an aggressive advertising campaign.
Bethany is in the middle of the pack. It’s part of a string of Southern Delaware beach towns, including Rehoboth Beach and Dewey Beach, that generate more than $3.5 billion in annual revenue, according to Southern Delaware Tourism. The upscale community — which largely draws families from the Washington D.C. area and northeastern states who favor house and condo rentals over hotels — typically sees its population swell from about 1,100 to 20,000 in the summer.
Outbreak mars comeback
On June 1, after a 2½-month coronavirus shutdown, Bethany’s downtown stores and eateries reopened at 30% capacity (it’s now 60%) and beaches were opened to out-of-state visitors. But the path back to normalcy has been anything but smooth.
In late June, several teens staying in a Dewey Beach rental unit tested positive for the virus, potentially exposing others in Dewey and more than 100 people at crowded gatherings in Rehoboth. The outbreak prompted Gov. John Carney to shut down area bars just before the critical July 4th holiday. They had reopened only two weeks earlier.
Days later, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania required residents traveling to Delaware to quarantine for 14 days upon their return. The Bethany Beach Ocean Suites Hotel — with an average daily summer rate of $799 — was flooded with cancellations, lowering occupancy from 100% to 70%, says general manager LorrieMiller.
“It was a bit rough,” she says.
The quarantine mandate was recently lifted but then reinstated by New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. Other speed bumps to recovery remain as well. Gone are evening concerts and movies at the boardwalk bandstand. And the town restricted several parking lots to local residents to reduce beach density, wiping out 20% of 1,250 spots.
Even with thinner crowds, businesses are struggling to hire employees with the J-1 visa summer exchange program suspended during the pandemic. Many local high school and college students simply won’t work. Some young adults, or their parents, fear catching the virus. Others didn’t want to give up the $1,000 a week in enhanced unemployment benefits they’ve pocketed after losing their jobs in the early days of the crisis, business owners say.
In response, the Ocean Suites hotel bumped up its hourly wage by a dollar and is handing out $1,000 bonuses to employees who stay through the summer, Miller says.
In the business district, printed and electronic signs warning visitors to wear face masks are everywhere, often within feet of each other. Nearly every shop greets patrons with hand sanitizer. So-called ambassadors in white sports shirts emblazoned with “code enforcement” join police in enforcing mandates to wear masks — except on the beach — and stay eight feet apart.
‘Every day is a new challenge’
Few Bethany businesses have been hit as hard as Mango’s, a clapboard-sided money-printing machine on the beach since 1997. The airy, festive restaurant, overlooking the ocean and dominated by a blue-accented mural of the sea, has helped define Bethany Beach.
“You come to the beach, you come to Mango’s,” says Alex Heidenberger, who co-owns the restaurant, and 13 others in Delaware and the D.C. area, with his father and brother.
Heidenberger snared a $250,000 forgivable federal loan to rehire nearly all of the 90 or so employees he laid off during the state’s shutdown. When bars were allowed to reopen in mid-June, Heidenberger figured he was off and running.
But when Gov. Carney decided to shut them down again before the July 4th weekend, “I cried,” Heidenberger says. Although customers can drink alcohol at tables, they can’t sit or stand at Mango’s two bars. The holiday crowd was already skimpy after the town’s annual parade, fireworks and concert were canceled. Mango’s revenue, he says, fell by $300,000 in the weeks before and after July 4th, accounting for the bulk of the $400,000 in losses the restaurant has sustained during the crisis.
“To take two steps back, that is the worst possible scenario,” says Heidenberger, a tall, bearded 40-year-old who sports a red bandana that doubles as a face covering and the rangy, muscled physique of his lifeguard years.
Liquor, he says, accounts for most of his profits since its costs make up just 14% of revenue while food costs comprise nearly a third of sales. “You’re taking away from us the thing that makes the most money,” Heidenberger says, suggesting that closing bars sends young adults to house parties, where they’re more likely to be infected.
During the good times, he says, the restaurant generated about $200,000 a week in sales, and its $2 million in summer revenue made up more than 80% of the yearly total. This summer, he says, Mango’s sales have been halved.
“It’s really devastating us,” he says. “I’m operating at a loss.”
Heidenberger, meanwhile, grapples with a relentless barrage of coronavirus-related woes. A server or manager spends time with someone who tested positive and is out on quarantine for a couple of weeks. Several other employees freak out, quit and must be replaced.
Heidenberger spends an inordinate share of his time asking patrons to put on a face covering if they walk maskless to the restroom, inevitably eliciting a profanity-laced response.
Recently, he received only half the 30 liquor cases he ordered because of worker shortages at a warehouse, forcing him to scavenge for the rest at his family’s other restaurants.
“Every day is a new challenge — it’s just exhausting,” he says.
Heidenberger, who typically draws about $20,000 a month in profit from the restaurant, now receives nothing. He says he hasn’t paid the mortgage on his home the past four months. He served lifeguard duty for a couple of weeks, mostly to help a beach crew depleted by COVID-19 quarantines but also to make some cash.
“I’m working harder than I have ever worked in my life,” he says, adding that he puts in about 80 hours a week at the two restaurants. Yet, “I have no money… This is all I think about. I don’t sleep.”
To generate extra revenue, Heidenberger recently held a Bingo night, doling out gift certificates to winners, and he’s planning a trivia night. This, he says, isn’t Mango’s sweet spot.
“Mango’s is cool,” he says. “Bingo isn’t cool.”
Will the restaurant make it through the summer?
“I don’t know what the future is going to be,” Heidenberger says, noting his family already has closed two restaurants in D.C. as a result of the pandemic. At the same time, he says, “This is all I know. This is what I love.”
‘Like a dream I just want to wake up from’: Teens struggle to find work, independence in a summer defined by COVID-19
Other Bethany merchants are getting creative too. With sales down about 30% from last year, Alison Schuch, owner of Fells Point Surf, has placed Quick Response codes on her shop window next to outfit-draped manikins. Customers fearful of entering the store can point their cell phones at the QR codes, taking them to Fells Point’s website so they can buy the items.
“It truly is window shopping,” she says.
Schuch also has gotten out of her comfort zone, staging Facebook Live events and advertising on Instagram to drive web traffic.
When customers enter the store, a sales associate asks if she can sanitize their hands. Many gladly consent, holding their hands out for a spritz. One woman complies with a wince. Sometimes, customers turn and walk out. “We’re constantly cleaning,” Schuch says.
With many Americans still working from home and rarely going out, Schuch is more prominently displaying sweatshirts and T-shirts. She also has switched from some brand-name clothing to private label outfits to take advantage of Americans’ desire to support local businesses. Yet her total stock is down about 30%, she says, because of virus-related closures at overseas factories that produce board shorts, some bathing suits and other items.
“I’m just trying to figure out how to make up” for lost revenue in “a small period of time,” she says. “Things are really tight,” she adds, noting she isn’t turning a profit.
Across the street, at Comics and Gaming, sales of comic books — priced from about $4 to $2,000 — are down about 40% this summer, says owner Tom Chillemi. So he’s juicing traffic by putting 20 comic books in a sealed paper bag and selling the DC or Marvel “grab bag” — a $100 value, Chillemi says — for just $20, stacking rows of them on shelves near the entrance.
“I know everybody’s money is tight and I want to give them something that has value,” he says.
Overall, though, he says he’s losing money, hunkering down and drawing on savings from his seven good years.
‘We’ll be ok’
On the boardwalk, business at Tidepool Toys & Games held up well in June but fell by about a third in July, say co-owners Lori and Sandy Smyth. Some customers are hesitant to visit the store, and the couple had to remove their popular toy demonstration table because of infection risks. So they’ve been conducting Facetime sessions to reach the homebound, giving video tours of their offerings, which lean toward classics such as Wiffle Balls, frisbees, hula hoops, toy cars, and Rubik’s cubes.
Spike balls and other in-demand products are in short supply because of factory closures in China. Partly filling the gap are puzzles and other home-centered games, Sandy says. While he doesn’t expect to turn a profit this summer, he reckons he’ll make money for the year. He credits the store’s prime boardwalk location and the fact that about half its sales are in the off season.
“We’ll be ok,” he says.
A broader recovery, though, depends on the willingness of Bethany Beach visitors and residents to venture out again. The narrow beach was a sea of blue and orange umbrellas Friday but that’s partly because much of it has been erased by erosion and high tide. And many visitors are confining themselves to the beach.
Jeanie and Jay Blomquist of Bethesda, Maryland, both 51, are eating out once every couple of weeks instead of their usual three times-a-week summer ritual, and only outdoors. And they’re no longer sauntering into stores.
“I just don’t shop anymore,” Jeanie says as she sips a drink in a beach chair. “If I don’t need to do it, I don’t do it.”
Adds Jay, “If you go and get ice cream, you can’t lick it with your mask on.”
This story is the second in an occasional series about workers, families and business owners struggling to cope with the coronavirus pandemic in the summer of 2020.
Contributing: WUSA9, Meredith Newman of the (Wilmington, Delaware) News Journal
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Summer 2020: Coronavirus leaves beach towns worried they won’t survive