‘There are a lot of People in Town’

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STONE HARBOR – When Stone Harbor Public Works Department Director Grant Russ gave his monthly report to Stone Harbor Borough Council Aug. 4, he noted that the amount of trash and recycling picked up by the borough this year represented an increase over 2019, a one-month increase of 80 tons.

“There are a lot of people in town,” Russ added.

As the council heard a report on the damage Isaias caused, Russ, again, pointed to the crowds of residents at this time in summer. As his crews tried to pick up debris, they had to abandon the effort because “when the storm passed, residents came out and we had a lot of people on the streets,” he said.

In Stone Harbor, the pandemic doesn't appear to have reduced the number of second homeowners and visitors who have traveled to the borough. Every measure of activity related to public service functions suggest the population of the town swelled earlier than usual and has maintained itself more continuously this year than most.

The borough, which the most current census estimates put at less than 1,000 year-round residents, has 85% of its housing owned by those who don’t make Stone Harbor their permanent home. When almost everyone is in town, the population rises by factors of six or more, counting rental properties, hotel stays, and out-of-county property owners.

Council member Reese Moore told his colleagues that water use was up by 38%, in May, and 43%, in June, over the same months, in 2019.

Fire Chief Roger Stanford reported increases in fire and emergency medical services calls, attributing the early season increases over last year to more people in town.

Any worries that the pandemic would reduce the summer crowds were put to rest early. In communities like Stone Harbor, the mainstays of the summer influx are the non-resident property owners who came early, despite efforts to discourage them from doing so.

In March, Freeholder Director Gerald Thornton asked second homeowners to delay plans to come to the shore (https://bit.ly/2DHQpLW). Noting that half of the county’s occupancy units are owned by out-of-county individuals, Thornton suggested these property owners ride out the COVID-19 crisis at their permanent homes. That was at the peak of fear over the virus when much less was known about transmission capabilities, age vulnerabilities, and mortality rates.

They came anyway. Stone Harbor began to fill up with its second homeowners and nothing happened to its COVID-19 counts.

The county reported 346 confirmed cases of COVID-19 May 1. None were in Stone Harbor.

By June 1, county cases grew to 637, and the borough registered its first positive test. On July 3, the day before the summer’s biggest holiday, the Stone Harbor count was still one case and it was no longer active, having been moved off quarantine by the county Health Department.

By July 8, the county began reporting non-resident positive tests and Stone Harbor saw a jump to 16 cases, with 14 of those non-residents. This wasn’t the second homeowners. It marked a shift that came with July, as young people began flocking to the shore for the annual summer fun.  Early July saw large spikes caused, in part, by indoor house parties or very large close contact beach gatherings of teens and twentysomethings.

The nature of the summer crowd changed, as more young people joined it and risky behavior increased.

By Aug. 6, Stone Harbor’s numbers declined from that temporary increase in July. Now, there are 10 confirmed cases, six of which are off quarantine. These numbers came on the day the county’s total caseload among residents passed 1,000, at 1,001. The first case, in the county, was reported March 18.

All the measures of activity say many second homeowners came early and stayed. They elected to ride out the worst months of the contagion away from the urban hot spots that made the nightly news.

The impact on the borough’s experience of the pandemic appears to have been minimal. The beaches are crowded but spread out, with extra lifeguard stands to aid distancing.

Water usage and trash tonnage are up. Most importantly, the borough’s COVID-19 case count is stable, and may even be declining.

Whatever happens with the pandemic will likely not be because out-of-county property owners came to their treasured summer homes early this season.

To contact Vince Conti, email vconti@cmcherald.com.

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