Five Mile Island Mayors Urge: Don't Relocate Due to COVID-19

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WILDWOOD - The Wildwoods' mayors sent mixed messaging regarding what they wanted their second homeowners to do as the COVID-19 pandemic continued this past week. 

At first, they spoke in unison, in a joint press release, urging people to stay home. As the public relations fallout continued, some backed off that position.

March 17, Freeholder Director Gerald Thornton first issued a strong suggestion to stay away, the antithesis of the county’s normal attitude of welcoming tourists.  

“This is a national crisis. It’s not vacation time. It’s not an extended vacation,” Thornton said, in a phone interview with the Herald.

This was met with backlash from thousands of second homeowners who pay taxes year-round and feel the local economy depends on them. They have weeks off from work and school and want to socially distance in their shore houses.

“I’ll tell you exactly my response. What we’re asking them to do is be responsible. Be responsible for themselves and be responsible for their families,” Thornton said. “All we’re asking them to do is be responsible.”

The following day, Wildwood Crest Mayor Don Cabrera took things a step further, saying he wanted to close all of the bridges in and out of the Wildwoods to non-year-round residents or people who work in the Wildwoods (https://bit.ly/3boRvI0).

“It’s ridiculous for city leadership to not allow homeowners to enter the island, and keeping all tourists out would be absolutely disastrous for business owners on the island. I can’t believe they would actually do it,” said Jim Jones, who e-mailed the Herald with his concerns. “Yes, I would go to court if I had to in order to use my property. Plus, I’m sure they would still expect me to pay my property taxes even if they said I couldn’t get to it.”

But with less than 250 hospital beds in the county -- according to Rutgers University -- and 25% of the population 65 or older -- according to Thornton -- there are fears of how an influx of travelers could strain limited resources as the pandemic worsens. 

“If you have any heart whatsoever – probably the areas they’re coming from have much more resources than what we do in our little county – I would ask them to take that into consideration,” Cabrera told the Herald.

Cabrera met with Wildwood Mayor Peter Byron in Wildwood Crest Borough Hall and Mayor Patrick Rosenello of North Wildwood joined them, via phone, to discuss shutting bridges.

 They later learned they wouldn’t have the authority; such would be a decision made at the state level. 

 Byron said his initial reaction was that the idea to shutter traffic is “a little extreme,” but supported telling second homeowners to stay away. The city issued a press release the following day, saying it would not close the bridges imminently. 

“We’re highly encouraging people, please stay home. Have respect for your fellow people. There is no reason to come to the shore at this point, really,” Byron said, adding, “The discussions that we’ve had with the freeholders, specifically with Freeholder Thornton, is the fact that we’re going to do everything that we can to discourage people from coming to our community at this point. It’s a lot of stress on all of our resources at this point. We’re not geared up for this type of activity.”

Asked to respond to second homeowners who were livid that the mayors would consider barring them from their properties, Byron explained he understands where they are coming from, but this is a unique time.

“I respect that. I certainly respect and understand their position. But this is a monumental occurrence here. We don’t have any idea where it’s at. You can’t see it. It’s not like a flood where you can see the tide subsiding,” he said.

North Wildwood Mayor Patrick Rosenello said. in a Facebook post, that he is not in favor of closing the island and advised second homeowners planning on coming to bring their supplies with them. He did not return phone calls from the Herald.

Thornton used an example of a woman he fielded a call from to highlight his belief that people coming to the shore to hang out and wait out the pandemic aren’t considering the potential consequences of their actions.

“She said, ‘I saw you on television, my kids want to go down and see their grandparents down in Villas. We spend our summers with them, can we go down there?’ I said, ‘how old are their grandparents?’ ‘Well they’re in their 70s.’ They’re the most vulnerable. Do you really want to bring your kids down and expose them perhaps to contact? She said ‘oh yeah, well I think we still want to go down. We’re off for a couple weeks.’ There’s the example. You have to be responsible.”

Asked if he would consider taking it a step beyond strong suggestions and put mandates in place on travel, Thornton said, “We don’t have the authority to take it a step further.”

“I’m very, very concerned,” Thornton said, adding he thinks this is “10-times worse than H1N1.”

“I’m in that vulnerable population. I’m trying to follow those procedures that we’ve outlined to do,” Thornton, 78, said. “The significance is that as the freeholder director in Cape May County, I have an obligation to the citizens of Cape May County, and I need to think of them first before I think of myself. I’m going to say that candidly.”

To contact Shay Roddy, email sroddy@cmcherald.com.

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