A Memorial Day like no other means no unofficial start to summer this year in Delaware

Maddy Lauria Taylor Goebel
Delaware News Journal

As a young boy growing up in southern New Jersey, Nicholas Caggiano Sr. can still remember the World War II sirens that kept him and his family sheltered in place each time they heard them ringing through the night.

The current lockdown from the coronavirus pandemic reminds him of those wartime memories, now about half a century later as he grapples with what the shutdown will mean for his family’s beach business.

“I just feel that we’re in a different country,” the 83-year-old said. “You can’t do this, and you can’t do that. We definitely understand that, and you just try to keep yourself optimistic. But it’s horrible.”

This year will be Nicola Pizza’s 49th year in business in Rehoboth Beach. The pizza shop, known and loved for their Nic-o-Bolis, is heavily dependent on foot traffic brought by the area’s beach tourism. The same goes for most small businesses found throughout Delaware’s coastal resort towns from Lewes to Fenwick Island.

“People come to Rehoboth Beach for the beach, and without the beach, you have nothing,” he said. “And I don’t want anybody to get sick, believe me.”

A handful of people walk on the streets of Rehoboth Beach on a warm day in early May, but the beaches and boardwalk remain closed due to the coronavirus outbreak.

But Caggiano, at the time of this interview, didn't know when Rehoboth Beach might reopen its beach and boardwalk. Officials announced late Tuesday that the beach and boardwalk could reopen "with limitations" on Friday.

Gov. John Carney on Friday had announced he will extend the state of emergency until May 31, with hopes of starting to reopen in June. 

"Because of the ongoing threat in Sussex County, we are not in a position yet to open Delaware's beaches, or remove restrictions on short-term rentals and out-of-state travelers," Carney said in a press release. "We need everyone to really lean into the effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in southern Delaware."

Caggiano doesn’t know what Memorial Day weekend – often thought of as the unofficial start of summer – will bring this year with so many restrictions still in place.

No one really does. But it will certainly be much, much different than years past.

“That’s one of the worst things, the uncertainty, because you just don’t know what it’s gonna look like,” said Nicholas Caggiano Jr.

They’re hoping that by the time the true busy summer season rolls around – in July and August – more things will be fully opened up and there will be a chance to recover some spring losses.

But besides the uncertainty of the coronavirus, businesses along Delaware’s beaches are also heavily dependent on weather. Nice sunny days have been sparse this spring, which may prove to be a blessing and a curse for these beach businesses who would normally rely on early season business to prepare for the influx of summer visitors.

If temperatures hit the high 70s or 80s that weekend, though, it’s anyone’s guess whether 100 people show up in Rehoboth or 2,000 – regardless of what restrictions are in place.

What the Caggianos do know is that if Delaware doesn’t take similar steps as other nearby beach towns like Ocean City, Maryland, the path to recovery for these struggling businesses is going to be that much harder. Caggiano Sr. said he’s already hearing that 30% of Rehoboth Beach businesses won’t survive the losses they’re already facing.

Nicholas Caggiano Sr. poses in his Rehoboth restaurant, Nicola Pizza, on Thursday, May 7. After almost 50 years in the business he's used to sales fluctuating with the weather, but the closed beaches are something different. "To be honest with you it's been a heck of a blow," he said.

“If they’re gonna be [open] before us, they need to understand what the consequences are gonna be – we won’t have any business here,” Caggiano said. “They’ll all go to Ocean City and leave us with nothing.”

The latest announcement from Rehoboth Beach officials does allow for visitors to use the beach and boardwalk for exercise – and to access local businesses. Surfing, swimming and loitering on the beach, however, are not permitted. 

What’s at stake?

In early May, the seven mayors that make up Delaware’s Association of Coastal Towns sent a three-page letter to Delaware’s top officials, outlining their thoughts on when and how coastal resort towns should start to reopen.

Local businesses rely heavily on tourist spending and cannot survive on the much smaller population of full-time residents in those towns. In southern Delaware, tourism is a $2.1 billion industry supporting nearly 20,000 jobs, many of which rely on the exact activities that have been banned since March: nonessential travel, short-term rentals, dining and shopping.

A handful of people walk on the streets of Rehoboth Beach on a warm day in early May, but the beaches and boardwalk remain closed due to the coronavirus outbreak.

“That’s the hot topic, is when they’re gonna lift nonessential travel,” said Lauren Weaver, executive director of the Bethany-Fenwick Area Chamber of Commerce. “You just can hear the fear and despair in a lot of people’s voices with the unknown opening date.”

Still, the mayors said in the letter, opening on or before Memorial Day “is not feasible” due to the ongoing health risk of COVID-19 cases, particularly in Sussex County where positive cases continue to climb. As of Tuesday, May 12, Delaware’s southernmost county had 3,205 confirmed COVID-19 cases, 48% of the state’s total, state data show.

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“We have to make sure we do everything we can to protect our residents, but we also don’t want to be in a situation where our businesses will all fail,” Lewes Mayor Ted Becker said. “And so, it’s a balance. And striking that balance is not going to be an easy task.”

They also said there will not be a “one-size-fits-all” approach to reopening beaches, which has been true from the start. While some, like Bethany Beach, have completely closed off the beach and boardwalks, other places like Lewes, South Bethany and Ocean City, are allowing some walking and exercise activities.

On Friday, residents will be able to return to Rehoboth Beach and boardwalk, as well, under similar restrictions.

Delaware’s coastal leaders have found themselves cloaked in uncertainty, stuck in a holding pattern until state officials make more detailed decisions about a phased reopening of the state’s economy.

“There’s an awful lot of unknowns,” Becker said. “We’re a long way from being back to what we would call a pre-COVID normal.”

New marketing strategy: Social distancing

The same goes for local beach staples, like the Starboard in Dewey Beach.

Instead of the usual jam-packed mass of college students, old-timers, locals and tourists this time of year, a construction worker stands in the famed venue’s empty lot, eyeing a takeout menu.

He’s wearing a mask. It’s lunchtime. Few people are milling about, though cars with D.C. and Pennsylvania license plates are driving past Dewey’s milelong strip, heading south, possibly to Ocean City, where the beaches and the boardwalk opened May 9. 

Across from the Starboard last week, "Do Not Cross" tape was wrapped around the beach entrances. Delaware beaches are technically open only for walking and exercising, but some towns like Bethany closed the beach off entirely to prevent large crowds. Dewey moved to reopen the beach for exercise only this past weekend, and Rehoboth followed suit Tuesday.

Starboard co-owner Steve “Monty” Montgomery would like to believe people go to Dewey solely for his famed restaurant and bar, but he knows the shoreline is a main draw. 

“They’re going to Ocean City because they’re here for the beach first,” he said of tourists.

Steve "Monty" Montgomery poses in front of his business the Starboard, in Dewey Beach, in 2020.

Montgomery usually doesn’t skip a beat. After 20-plus years of running his entertainment oasis, he knows what and when to order, and can predict revenue on a day-to-day basis. And he’s ready to make a year’s worth of income in three months. 

But now there’s uncertainty, money lost, product wasted. Montgomery can’t see what the next two weeks – two months even – will bring.

“Can anyone survive an 18-month off-season?” he said, standing in the Starboard’s empty lot. “We just survived the last six or eight months of off-season. Do we have to do another 10 months? If so, I promise you, many will not survive.”

The town is also struggling: Mayor Dale Cooke said Dewey Beach may have up to a $1.5 million shortfall this year because of the pandemic. That’s nearly 43% of the town’s budget. 

“We’ll get through this, but right now it would take all of our savings,” he said.

Montgomery said the Starboard will survive, but he’s worried about his employees and smaller businesses in the town. He’s hopeful that some restrictions will be lifted soon. 

A sign at the Starboard in Dewey Beach reminding customers of rules surrounding take-out drinks on Thursday, May 7. As Memorial Day approaches, coronavirus closures have dulled the usual hum of summer preparations.

He’ll have to change the Starboard’s marketing so people become comfortable with dining again, advertising cleanliness alongside Bloody Mary’s and live entertainment, and showing customers that the restaurant industry is among the most regulated by the health department.

“The reality is opening at first, we don’t know what that means,” Montgomery said. “It’s certainly not going to be the normal Starboard, where people are packed.”

A non-start to summer

On the first Saturday in May, Rehoboth Beach Patrol Capt. Kent Buckson was doing paperwork in his office along the Boardwalk when he realized how loud the empty silence could be.

“It was so quiet,” he said, with no one at all allowed on the city’s boardwalk or beach. “It’s just something you’re not used to experiencing. It was kind of a lonely feeling, an empty feeling of quietness.”

By now, he’d have his staff of dozens of lifeguards, first responders and others preparing for the influx of beachgoers. But that familiar feeling of preparing for the start of the summer season doesn’t exist this year, he said.

“Not to have that, it’s gonna be hard,” he said. “It really is. But maybe it will make that one day we open up even more exciting.”

Rehoboth Beach residents Sylvia and Nick Matiuck walk across Rehoboth Ave. on Thursday, May 7. They're worried about an increase in the spread of the virus if beaches re-open. "I don't think people realize this is a war," said Sylvia, who's seen many around town not taking recommended precautions. "It's your civic duty to wear a mask."

He hasn’t been told when that might happen. But Rehoboth Beach Mayor Paul Kuhns said recently it’s not unlikely to think that the beaches and boardwalk will be reopened come July or August.

“If I have a reservation for a house or hotel room in July or August, I’m not gonna cancel,” he said after being asked what advice he would give to regular summer visitors. “I’m gonna hope to go to the beach, hope to go out to eat, hope to shop or get an ice cream cone, hope to be on the boardwalk or beach. I believe the boardwalk and beach may be open at that time.”

The letter Kuhns and other mayors sent expressed concern about bigger beach towns with boardwalks – Rehoboth Beach and Bethany Beach – being overwhelmed at a potentially dangerous level when they do reopen. Not opening Memorial Day weekend, and possibly not in June, will give leaders the chance to see how reopening amenities go in other coastal states and towns first.

Rehoboth officials opted Tuesday to reopen the beach and boardwalk with limitations starting Friday, meaning visitors must be exercising or patronizing a local business if they're on the boardwalk or on the beach. Activities like swimming still aren't permitted.

On May 8, Carney announced phase one will begin June 1, but not for Delaware's beaches, short-term rentals and other elements that drive the coastal tourism industry.

For coastal businesses, the summer season is usually when they make their money to support year-round bills like rent and utilities. And a lot of tourism also depends on large events, like the city’s Fourth of July celebration that attracts about 50,000 people to a resort area with a year-round population of no more than 1,500.

That event – and many others – have already been canceled.

“If you have a great summer, you can get into the fall and it’s gonna be gravy,” Kuhns said. “I don’t think this fall is gonna be gravy.”

Matt Carter has been ready to reopen his recreational business, Quest Adventures, for months. His tropical rental shacks in downtown Lewes, Cape Henlopen State Park and the Roosevelt Inlet are stacked with umbrellas, kayaks, hammocks and other beach accouterments. 

As the owner of a nonessential business, Carter is also waiting for the green light from the state of Delaware and local beachside municipalities.

Ashley Fedalen paints outside of South Beach Fashion in Rehoboth Beach while her 6-year-old son plays nearby. "I have to be a mom and a teacher," she said. "I also have to work whenever I can." She's been doing odds and ends jobs since the store closed, but only is able to work around half her normal hours.

“You can’t go kayaking in the middle of the ocean where there’s no one there, but you can go to Walmart, to the petri dish,” he said, half-joking. 

He’d like to start renting out activities that are self distancing-friendly by nature, like paddleboarding, especially because the other aspect of his business – beach parties and bonfires – is suffering.

He’s had 10 cancellations already, mostly from upcoming graduations. 

“People are canceling even in June and July because of the uncertainty,” Carter said. 

He’s trying to stay optimistic, but he’s anticipating slow times as much as he’s hoping for a rush of business once beaches are open and stay-at-home orders are lifted. That’s because he doesn’t know if people will be ready to venture out.

“Are people cooped up or are they going to be like, ‘I’m still scared’ or ‘I spent all my savings because I’ve been unemployed,’” he said. “We’re looking at both sides.”

The future fallout

It’s difficult to quantify the exact losses for southern Delaware’s tourism industry quite yet, and even harder to anticipate future losses without a concrete end in sight.

But looking just at hotel occupancy data – a key metric tourism officials use to determine how good business is – shows huge losses for the industry so far, said Southern Delaware Tourism Executive Director Scott Thomas.

“Memorial Day is kind of a launching pad for summer weekends here at the summer beaches,” he said, adding that upwards of 90% of hotel rooms were booked that holiday weekend over the past three years.

But this year, for the few hotels that remain open, occupancy is in the single digits, he said, because they’re only able to provide rooms to specific groups of people under the state’s order.

A handful of people walk on the streets of Rehoboth Beach on a warm day in early May, but the beaches and boardwalk remain closed due to the coronavirus outbreak.

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“That’s quite a dropoff when you’re looking at 85 to 90% down to single digits. That’s certainly a sign of the times right now,” Thomas said. “I think we will be able to salvage summer, it’s just a matter of how soon and when will that be.”

The Caggianos over at Nicola Pizza, like Carter with Quest Kayaks and many others in coastal Delaware, still wonder if, when restrictions are lifted, people will be too wary to travel again, willing to sit on a crowded beach or dine near strangers.

“It’s like starting all over again,” Caggiano Sr. said. “Going forward, I don’t think people are going to go out. I think it’s going to change the mentality.”

In addition to the well-known family business along Rehoboth Avenue, the local business family has also been building a new hotel closer to Lewes. They had hoped to have it open before Memorial Day, but construction delays followed by the pandemic have pushed the opening date back to July 15.

They’re holding out hope that people will want to come visit – and will be able to access the beach amenities they’re coming for – by that time, the Caggianos said.

A stuffed bear boasts a hopeful message in front of Sweet Memories Antiques in Dover on May 7, inspired by the film 'The Postman.' Behind it, the store sits closed.  "Zero money for six weeks, it's terrible beyond belief," said the store's owner Mary Poluaf. "I put the sign on the bear to cheer people up."

“We’ve had growing pains the last 50 years,” Caggiano Sr. said. “We have down times and up times, and a heck of a lot of up times. We’re optimistic.”

This year isn’t going to fall into an “up time” category, but they’re still hoping that financial help from the federal government and loyalty among their employees and customers will keep them afloat.

“I don’t think people are gonna forget this,” the Nicola patriarch said. “I really think this is something like World War II to me, and I’ll never forget that. It’s a learning experience. And, basically, it will make us stronger, not weaker."

Contact reporter Maddy Lauria at (302) 345-0608, mlauria@delawareonline.com or on Twitter @MaddyinMilford. Contact Taylor Goebel at 302-332-0370 or tgoebel@delmarvanow.com. Follow her on Twitter at @taylorgoebel