OCEAN CITY, Md.—The Dough Roller restaurant’s 53-table dining room sits quiet and empty steps from the boardwalk. Proprietor Kevin Gibbs doesn’t know when he will be allowed to offer dine-in service or even if the crowds of summers past will return.
And the clock is about to start ticking.
“I have 110 days to make my money for 365,” he said.
From Ocean City to the Jersey Shore to Cape Cod, the window between Memorial Day and Labor Day is make-or-break for hotels, restaurants, arcades and T-shirt shops. On top of potential concerns about the coronavirus pandemic, more than 36 million Americans have filed for unemployment benefits, pinching disposable incomes.
Mayor Rick Meehan says a speedy but safe reopening is vital for this town of 7,000 residents, which can swell to 300,000 visitors on summer weekends. “Just like the rest of the country, we’re in an economic crisis right now,” he said.
Town officials have eased some restrictions. The beach and boardwalk reopened May 9. Last week, the town allowed hotels and short-term rentals to take guests after Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, lifted a statewide stay-at-home order and let retail stores open at half-capacity.
Visitors, many not wearing masks, have hit the boardwalk, where the town blocked off some benches, and signs remind people to keep 6 feet apart.
But under Mr. Hogan’s statewide recovery plan, Ocean City fixtures like high-capacity bars and restaurants won’t be allowed to operate at prepandemic occupancy levels until there is a widely available coronavirus vaccine or an effective treatment. Neither is expected before summer’s end.
Outdoor dining isn’t permitted yet, and Mr. Meehan on Monday sent the governor a letter asking for the authority to let bars and restaurants open their outside areas at 50% capacity. A spokesman for Mr. Hogan said that is part of the next phase of Maryland’s gradual reopening, though it isn’t clear when that might take effect.
For the hundreds of Ocean City businesses, reopening can’t come soon enough, says Susan Jones, executive director of the Hotel Motel Restaurant Association. A “we’re ready for you” publicity campaign spotlights stepped-up sanitizing and other health measures. One reason Ms. Jones says she feels optimistic is that the town’s wide beach makes social distancing easier.
Adam Showell Sr., majority owner of Ocean City’s Castle in the Sand Hotel, said while he expects gross sales to drop, he anticipates typical net income, thanks to a roughly $500,000 forgivable loan under the federal Paycheck Protection Program, deferred mortgage payments, scaled-back renovation plans and loyal guests.
“It was catastrophic two months ago when all this started coming down. I was scared to death. Now I’m definitely optimistic,” Mr. Showell said.
The 181-room beachfront hotel is set to reopen Friday, and general manager Adam Showell Jr. said he hopes it to be about half full.
One concern is out-of-town visitors could bring the coronavirus with them to Ocean City, causing an outbreak in an area largely spared by the pandemic so far.
“If we get a spike in cases, we’re all in for a rude awakening,” said Jeff Hicks, Castle in the Sand’s food-and-beverage general manager, taking a break from power-washing patio chairs.
“We just have to mitigate that risk as much as possible,” Mr. Showell Jr. replied.
The lobby counter has large Purell dispensers and a bucket-like container that uses ultraviolet light to sanitize room keys. A rack of tourist brochures has been removed, and a sign instructs people not to sit in the chairs. Staff will take employees’ temperature daily and spray guest rooms with disinfectant.
Lenny Sawicki, a 64-year-old retiree from Wilkes-Barre, Pa., said he still plans to spend a week in July at the hotel, a family tradition since the early 1990s.
“It’s not going to stop us from a vacation,” he said of the pandemic.
Marie Ferguson of Towson, Md., said it is far too soon for a beach vacation. She and nine members of her family canceled their weeklong Ocean City condo stay.
“Everywhere you go it’s packed,” said Ms. Ferguson, 50. “They’re not going to wear masks at the beach. It’s not going to happen.”
On a sunny mid-May afternoon, Egan O’Brien, 48, of Annapolis, Md., relaxed next to Ocean City’s mostly empty beach. He said he usually visits several times a summer but doesn’t know if he can afford to this year because he lost his restaurant job in the shutdown and now earns less as a grocery store cashier.
Many local businesses are getting ready for whatever is in store. At Bahia Marina, fuel pumps are on and boats can be rented. Fish Tales, its nearly 400-seat restaurant, is open for takeout. Tables and chairs are stacked up in the parking lot in preparation for when reduced outdoor seating is allowed.
“This year is hold-on-to-what-you-got. Our goal is to make it to next year to be able to open up again,” co-owner Shawn Harman said. If he can operate Fish Tales at 75% capacity by July, he said, “it won’t be a great year, but we’ll manage.”
At the Dough Roller, near the foot of the boardwalk, masked cashiers take carryout orders from behind plexiglass. Mr. Gibbs has cordoned off some booths and tables so customers would be able to maintain distance once he can open the dining room, which accounts for 60% of receipts. The restaurant, one of five his family owns locally, also has a small outdoor seating area.
Weak sales this summer will spell trouble not only for his family’s restaurants, he said, but for merchants all over town. “It could be a bloodbath here in the winter,” he said.