Vacation Mecca Wants Visitors to Stay Away — For Now

Ocean City authorities getting ready for the 2019 summer season. Town of Ocean City Flickr account photo

It’s not the ad campaign Ocean City’s official cheerleaders thought they would be running right now.

But a global pandemic has forced people to avoid gathering in groups. And what is OC — with its throngs of sweaty beach-goers, fistfuls of french fries and all-night Coastal Highway revelers — if not the ultimate group experience?

So, just six weeks out from the Memorial Day weekend, the unofficial kickoff of summer, the resort is adapting. In a nod to circumstance, Ocean City leaders have launched a media campaign unlike any they’ve ever run.

Called “We’ll Be Here,” the town’s new 30-second television spot features aerial video of the beach.

A sunny but decidedly empty beach.

“Ocean City, Maryland, isn’t the same without you,” an announcer says. “But rest assured, when it’s finally time to come out again, we’ll be here waiting.”

“The lifeguards and the tram drivers. The folks making french fries and funnel cakes. The waiters and waitresses. The guys running skee ball and mini golf. The hotel clerks and the T-shirts vendors. We’re all excited to see you, but until then, stay healthy.”

In other words, come to Ocean City. But not now.

“We’re a host community. And they’re doing what a host community should do,” said former mayor James C. Mathias about the campaign.

“Public safety has always been our number one priority. We put the safety of our visitors and our residents first. And this is an unprecedented time.”

Right now, Ocean City’s famous beaches and boardwalk are closed to everyone but year-round residents. Hotels and rental housing units are closed for business, except for health care professionals, first responders, law enforcement, National Guard members, state or federal government employees, journalists, others responding to COVID-19, victims of domestic violence, or full-time residents who, for whatever reason, are temporarily unable to live in their homes.

These restrictions are due to last until at least April 30.

It wasn’t that long ago that Maryland’s fabled beach town was airing intentionally cheesy TV spots that featured “Rodney,” a buff lifeguard who ran around “rescuing” sad-sack commuters and office workers from boredom.

An actor portrays an Ocean City lifeguard on a 10-year-old TV ad for the resort town. Screen grab

“I’m out to rescue the entire East Coast and bring ‘em to Ocean City, Maryland,” he yelled in one ad. “Let’s go, people, we need to get you to Ocean City.”

An announcer then described OC as “a whole lot more fun than whatever you’re doing right now.”

Things aren’t so fun in the town right now.

Numerous events that would have attracted large off-season crowds have been cancelled or postponed. And no one knows when people will be able to vacation at the beach.

Because of the resort’s short season and heavy reliance on tourism, the financial news service 24/7 Wall Street recently predicted that Worcester County would be among the nation’s hardest hit by the drop in economic activity.

“As non-essential travel has been effectively eliminated in an attempt to contain the coronavirus pandemic, many of the 9,000 jobs in the leisure and hospitality industry in the country are at risk,” the site reported.

“As of January, the county’s unemployment rate of 10.9% was already among the highest in the country. The economic toll caused by the coronavirus will almost certainly push unemployment even higher.”

Almost 40% of the county’s workforce works in “high-risk” industries.

Under the circumstances, state Sen. Mary Beth Carrozza (R-Lower Shore), who represents Ocean City, calls the current ad campaign “outstanding,” and says, “they really capture the spirit of Ocean City.”

“Our small business owners are working hard to welcome everyone back to Ocean City,” Carrozza said. “We understand it will be a phased-in approach to reopening with health, safety, sanitary and social distancing protocols in place.”

Carrozza predicted that when travel restrictions are lifted, families will want to return “to a place of comfort.”

But officials and business leaders are well aware of the financial perils of the pandemic.

Although it is home to just a few thousand permanent residents, Ocean City’s population swells to around 330,000 during summer weekends. Around 8 million people visit each year. And they buy a lot of funnel cake.

One restaurant owner told the Salisbury Daily Times that business is off more than 80% and that he has had to let some of his employees go. He called the last few weeks “a rollercoaster.”

Mathias, the former mayor — and a former state senator — has lived in the town for 50 years.

He said his mentor, the late Gov. William Donald Schaefer (D), would have appreciated the “We’ll Be Here” campaign.

“Governor Schaefer taught me about appreciation,” Mathias said. “You make sure the people who come there know how much they’re appreciated,” the legendary pol advised.

“You take care of the basics, son,” Schaefer added, according to Mathias. “And this is the basics.”

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Bruce DePuyt
Bruce DePuyt spent nearly three decades on local television, including 14 years as executive producer and host of News Talk on NewsChannel 8 in the Washington, D.C., area. He has served as reporter, anchor and producer/host of 21 This Week in Montgomery County and as reporter/anchor at NBC affiliate WVIR-TV in Charlottesville, VA. He's a regular contributor to WTOP (103.5 FM) and frequently moderates community and political events.