Risks Convince OC Mayor to Cancel Fireworks, Night in Venice

Thousands crowd the beaches and boardwalk each July 4 for Ocean City’s fireworks display. The city will not set off fireworks this year, due to ongoing concerns about COVID-19. Mayer Jay Gillian decided it was not worth the risk. He said the city is already exceptionally crowded.

NOTE: The Cape May County Herald is offering full coverage of the COVID-19 / coronavirus emergency to all, with no payment required. We are committed to ensuring our readers can make critical decisions for themselves and their families during this ongoing situation. To continue supporting this vital reporting, please consider a digital subscription or contribution. For more coverage, subscribe to our daily newsletter.

OCEAN CITY – Mayor Jay Gillian did not want to cancel Night in Venice or the fireworks for July 4.

Each year, the events draw thousands to the resort, with crowds packed onto the boardwalk for the fireworks and along the bayfront street ends for the annual boat parade.

“I was done. I was having it because I needed to feel normal,” Gillian said at the June 25 Ocean City Council meeting. “I was selfish in a lot of ways.”

He said city employees convinced him of the risks to public safety.

As COVID-19 spread this spring, New Jersey was one of the hardest-hit states, especially in the counties closest to New York. Gov. Phil Murphy imposed strict emergency measures, closing businesses and canceling events.

Cape May County has seen relatively low rates of infection compared to other areas, but local officials worry that those rates could climb as visitors come to the shore.

Meanwhile, even as New Jersey begins to take steps toward normal, with restaurants reopening and crowds hitting the beaches, the U.S. has seen record numbers of new cases, with major outbreaks in Florida, Texas, and elsewhere.

At the meeting, the first one held in person in months, Gillian said he was willing to change his mind if he was presented with new information. He said staff members convinced him to change his mind about the events.

“It just made me realize that as great as those 15 minutes are,” he said, and no matter how good it feels, to put the police force and residents at risk is not worth it.

“I understand it’s a disappointment, and I know we have a lot of people out there who disagree with some of the decisions I make,” Gillian said, adding that he continues to speak about the virus with staff at Shore Medical Center each Monday.

He said every decision starts with health. He also has concern for police officers.

“This chief and his crew have made decisions that kept both of us up at night,” he said.

He added his disappointment that some people stated they plan to set off their own fireworks, something Ocean City Police have sought to dampen for years.

Gillian cited other barrier islands that have multiple communities. Ocean City is a rarity, in that there is a single municipality on the 8-mile island.

“We’re bigger than all of them,” he said, adding that the city has to balance a number of interests in every decision.

Gillian also mentioned the Night in Venice boat parade, which was set for July 18. This would have been the 66th year for the parade, which sees decorated boats and house parties along the bay. It’s long been one of the largest events of the summer.

“It’s the wrong thing to do right now,” Gillian said.

He does not want Ocean City to begin to reopen and then need to backtrack because of a spike in new infections. The city is already packed, with thousands of people on the beaches.

“We are inundated with a lot more people than we’ve ever seen before,” he said, “so when we talk about July 4, when we get thousands of people here, and then we’re going to compound it? It’s the wrong thing to do.”

The meeting was held at the Ocean City Senior Center, the first large gathering at the center in months. The room allows for more space between individuals than does the council chambers at City Hall. The meeting was also viewable through an interactive platform, so residents could participate remotely, and a video of the meeting was posted online.

At the same meeting, Gillian announced that Michael Allegretto, Ocean City’s former director of community services, was tapped as the new aide to the mayor. Gillian said he worked closely with Allegretto when they served on the school board.

“He’s somebody I can trust to get jobs done, and I’m looking forward to working with him as we tackle some of the major work ahead of us,” Gillian wrote in his weekly message to residents.

Dan Kelchner will take over as the new director of community services.

To contact Bill Barlow, email bbarlow@cmcherald.com.