Point Pleasant Beach party shows challenge of social distancing

BY Brenda Flanagan, Senior Correspondent |

Belmar’s drone lifted off for its regular noon mission. As people gathered on the beaches, the drone hovered at 150 feet to scan the crowds. Images show that beaches have been jam-packed lately, and with New Jersey’s stay-at-home order now lifted, a crush of sunseekers eager to escape the COVID-19 lockdown is on.

“When you’re up in the air, you actually can actually see the distance between the people on the beach and we can identify which areas are busier than others,” said Ryan Dullea, Belmar’s fire marshall.

“Then we make a decision what beaches to close down and have people move to either north or south of that location so we can maintain social distancing,” said Belmar administrator Ed Kirschenbaum.

Officials say, most people follow the rules, but not all. Further south, an extreme case in point when an unexpected pop-up party of “thousands” according to police overwhelmed Point Pleasant Beach. Other towns were called in for backup. An instagram video showed officers escorting some party-goers off the beach, and little, if any, social distancing and virtually no masks. It took hours to disperse the crowd, and the mayor posted a furious Facebook message.

“People were drinking in public yesterday, smoking weed in public, changing in front yards, urinating in bushes,” said Paul Kanitra.

Police reported no major incidents or damage to private property or businesses, but the crowd left garbage strewn across the beach.

“Our town was treated like an absolute toilet yesterday.While it appears to be an isolated incident, if we don’t want to be a Spring Break type of destination, and we want to keep young idiots from scaring away respectful families, then things need to change right now,” the mayor said. “If you do not plan to treat Point Pleasant Beach and its residents respectfully, you will leave with a very expensive ticket as a souvenir.”

State Police Superintendent Col. Pat Callahan reported no arrests were made at Wednesday’s daily coronavirus press briefing.

“From all the reports that I received, it was just that, a large gathering. They did request assistance; we had 15 troopers that responded. And it cleared, I think the last update I got was about 11, cleared without incident,” he said.

But while some violations might be obvious, others raise questions of fairness. Some protest organizers and business owners have been cited for violating Murphy’s earlier executive order against public gatherings. Yet Murphy marched in solidarity with a Black Lives Matter demonstration this past weekend.

Assemblyman Jay Webber says Murphy should offer clemency to those cited for violating the lockdown.

“I encourage the superintendent of State Police to issue a citation to the governor because what’s fair is fair, and the governor has to live by the rules that he sets out,” he said. “I do think he’s setting a bad example, because you can’t say the rules are for thee, but not for me.”

“I don’t think anyone who stands up and joins others with great passion and speaks out against the stain of racism in this country, which is now clocking in at 401 years, is setting any kind of bad example,” Murphy said at Wednesday’s press briefing. “Do it with face covering, get tested — we just did this morning. There are some things that go with that.”

The governor changed his executive order to cap outdoor activities at 100 people, but exempted “First Amendment protected outdoor activities.”

“COVID-19 science doesn’t apply to political protests. Other gatherings must be restricted, but political protests must go forward. So again it undermines all the arguments the governor has been making about ‘this isn’t about me, it’s about science and data,'” Webber said.

People, meanwhile, will be allowed to gather in groups of 500 by July 3. The virus is still out there.

“We were worried about on nice days, with people not having anything to do, they were coming to our beaches,” said Belmar Mayor Mark Walsifer.

Shore towns say they’re anxious to onboard the summer special police officers who focus on quality of life issues. They’re due to graduate later in June. Point Pleasant Beach will add 30 officers, and Belmar will add 28 officers. The mayors say they need them.