Memorial Day Weekend 2020: ‘Worst one anyone’s had ever’

People walk the boardwalk in Rehoboth, where many took advantage of the beach being opened to sunbathing and swimming after weeks of closure. Restrictions remain in place to limit the spread of COVID-19, including wearing face coverings. Special to the Delaware State News/Chuck Snyder

REHOBOTH BEACH — People sunbathed on the beach and swam in the ocean as many businesses attempted to operate under COVID-19 limitations, but the Memorial Day weekend wasn’t the normal kick off to the tourism season.

Local business owners despaired over the heavy restrictions, citing difficulties in generating enough money to stay afloat while following them.

Bill Svolis, employee of the landmark boardwalk eatery Gus & Gus, said business this weekend had been “terrible” when compared to other Memorial Day weekends.

“It’s hard to believe this is Memorial Day Saturday,” Mr. Svolis said, looking out at the boardwalk at Wilmington Avenue.

Mr. Svolis expressed frustration with restrictions he said are killing businesses across the country, comparing a summer without usual business to the sinking of the Titanic.

“Right now, it looks like we are on the Titanic, and everyone is in the same boat,” he said.

On Friday, the boardwalk and beach opened to all activities, not just exercising, after weeks of closures put in place by Gov. John Carney’s state of emergency order to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in Delaware.

Restrictions remain and beach ambassadors are enforcing a “Summer Safely” campaign to educate the public on wearing masks on the boardwalk and keeping a six-foot distance from others on the beach. High-risk individuals should still remain at home under the emergency orders and out-of-state visitors must self-quarantine for 14 days upon arrival in Delaware.

Informational signs decorated the boardwalk, explaining the rules. City employees sanitized benches along the boardwalk, even asking people sitting on them to move for cleaning.

Businesses on the boardwalk were allowed to open on Friday under strict restrictions, with the exception of arcades and amusement parks, which will remain closed even through phase one of Delaware’s economic reopening. Restaurants are limited to take-out and delivery services until phase one begins on June 1, while stores must regulate how many customers enter and widen aisles to allow proper distancing, among other steps to do businesswhile limiting the spread of the virus.

Zelky’s boardwalk arcade manager Matt Weiner said he spoke with Rehoboth Beach Mayor Paul Kuhns on Saturday about how they could renegotiate with Gov. Carney to make arcades safe for opening.

“It’s all up to the governor at this point,” Mr. Weiner said. “The mayor seems pretty on board with businesses opening in town under restrictions of the CDC guidelines and with permission of the governor.”

Saturday remained in the mid 70s and mostly sunny during the day, drawing moderate crowds considering the COVID-19-related restrictions. People lined up outside the take-away counter at Thrasher’s and waited for their by-appointment shopping at stores such as Quiet Storm and Browseabout Books.

Most parking spots were taken, with many filled by vehicles with out-of-state license plates.

George Soto of Newark, Delaware, and Evelyn Cirado of New Jersey, sat near the Rehoboth bandstand on benches, which the city put back out earlier this week.

Ms. Cirado said this weekend was her first time visiting Rehoboth Beach and she felt the 14-day quarantine rule for out-of-state visitors did not make sense.

“This is the beginning of a hopefully nice summer. It’s going to be a different summer, but why shouldn’t we still enjoy it and support the community also?” Ms. Cirado said.

Mr. Soto said he thinks with the proper restrictions, reopening local businesses can be safe for the public.

“As long as [the state] puts protections and social distancing procedures and regulations in place, and abides by them, I think we’re capable of doing anything and returning these businesses, maybe not 100 percent of what it used to be, but gradually lessening the restrictions,” Mr. Soto said.

Spencer Ward, who is from the Washington, D.C., area but is staying with his family at their beach home, said that he thinks out-of-state visitor restrictions are necessary for a holiday weekend.

“Today, because of Memorial Day weekend, I think this is when all this hard work is going to get unwound,” Mr. Ward said. “I don’t feel confident that this first wave is going to end because of Memorial Day weekend.”

With cloudy skies and temperatures stagnant in the mid-50s, Sunday drew less crowds than Saturday but still had a decent amount of people out.

Both days had a simliar scene of people wearing masks and some groups notably social distancing compared to others obviously less worried about following restrictions and still gathered in large groups. With lack of seating outside and no inside dining in restaurants, many visitors sat on the benches or crowded the sidewalk while enjoying their food.

Some business owners suggested that this Memorial Day weekend could be the worst one Rehoboth has seen in years. Mark Hamilton, the owner of clothing store Sunshine Octopus on Rehoboth Avenue, expressed concerns about how local businesses could stay afloat with their revenue down the drain.

“We have to start making money. And I can tell you now, already this Memorial Day weekend, obviously is going to be the worst one anyone’s had ever,” Mr. Hamilton said. “Money is essential.”

Mr. Hamilton, like many business owners in Rehoboth, said he had to stop ordering new inventory and keep staff at home to save money lost through two months of state-required closure.

Chris Huskey and Terry Ellen, employees of The Spice and Tea Exchange on the Avenue, said their location was previously the highest revenue generating location of the 90-plus stores across the country. And while they said they were planning for another successful summer, COVID-19 has changed everything.

“We have to restructure everything going forward,” Mr. Huskey said.

On a more positive note, manager of the Kite Store on the Avenue Michael Schwartz, said the store has found some success selling outdoors toys and games to keep families entertained on the beach. Although he has his concerns, Mr. Schwartz said he is hesitant to write off this summer before he can see how business turns out.

“I guess next week is when we’re really going to find out what’s really going on,” Mr. Schwartz said. “I think it does help that we sell outdoorsy stuff and [state officials] are letting people on the beach play games and fly kites. So, it hasn’t really hurt our business too much outside the fact that we just don’t have as many people.”

Visitors on the boardwalk expressed interest in supporting local restaurants and stores while trying to follow proper safety precautions. Three women from Milton, Natalie Darkes, Patty Armand, and Deb Small, gathered outside Grottos on the boardwalk to get some pizza. All three wore masks, expressing their concerns about safety.

“We have older parents, so we want to be as safe as possible,” Ms. Darkes said.

“Eventually, we’re hoping that everything begins to open up a little bit, but safer is better,” Ms. Armand added. “People are coming into town now, you can see all the out of state plates. So hopefully, everybody at least adheres to the best they can. It looks like people are trying, so at least that’s good.”

Carly Wasko, who graduated from University of Delaware this semester with a BA in Political Science, brought her family to the boardwalk on Saturday to take photos of her sporting her graduation robes. Late May is typically when the university holds its graduation ceremony for seniors, but due to COVID-19, the institution — like many across the country — has postponed an actual graduation indefinitely.

Ms. Wasko said she felt the commencement cancellation was necessary given the virus circumstances and hopes people will continue to social distance.

“Stay inside!” Ms. Wasko said.


Helpful Coronavirus links

Delaware Division of Health Coronavirus Page
CDC: About the Coronavirus Disease 2019
CDC: What to do if You Are Sick
Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
AP News Coronavirus Coverage
Reopening Delaware: Resources for Businesses
Delaware Phase 2 guidance

Have a question, tip, or resources about the coronavirus pandemic? Submit it to our newsroom and we’ll do what we can to provide answers.