The first sign of trouble at Donovan’s Reef Beach Bar in Sea Bright came before even entering the longtime Jersey Shore beachfront hangout rebuilt after being destroyed in Hurricane Sandy.
A bouncer advised the line waiting anxiously for some Saturday night fun that the wait could be a while due to a fight being broken up. A bar fight didn’t bode well for the required social distancing ordered for outdoor restaurants in the age of coronavirus.
Once beyond the entrance, I walked the ramp to the upper level of the expansive outdoor bar and surveyed the scene — a sea of 20-somethings in crop tops and polo shorts with drinks in hand and not a mask in sight. It was jammed. Hand-washing stations were vacant. People were partying like it was 2019.
For the young crowd out at Donovan’s tonight, there’s no such thing as social distancing or coronavirus. It’s just a Saturday night party pic.twitter.com/t2YsGGwrgY
— Josh Axelrod (@j0shaxelrod)
Donovan’s Reef was the last stop on a four-bar sampling of the Jersey Shore hotspots Saturday on the second weekend after outdoor dining was allowed to resume in New Jersey. The first weekend largely went well, but viral videos of packed outdoor spaces at D’Jais in Belmar drew the ire of Gov. Phil Murphy and town officials. A bar in Morristown lost its outdoor liquor license over violations the first weekend.
NJ Advance Media sent reporters out Friday and Saturday to check out the nightlife first hand. By Friday night, D’Jais had made some changes including cutting off entry at 10 p.m., but just blocks away at Bar Anticipation in Lake Como, the big crowd outside waiting to get in seemed to negate the well-managed social distancing efforts beyond the bouncers.
After the viral videos of the first weekend, we called multiple Jersey Shore towns to ask about compliance with the laundry list of rules. Officials from more than a dozen towns told me earlier in the week that bars were pretty much playing by the rules. The list of requirements is long — 29 in total broken into three sections. Most are focused on attempts to keep people at least 6 feet apart with seating limits of eight people per table.
On Tuesday, Sea Bright Mayor Brian P. Kelly told me that Donovan’s was catching flak from residents and officials nudged the bar’s management, reminding them to keep patrons 6 feet apart. He called the folks at Donovan’s “great people” and said he’d stop in later that week to chat with them.
But just before midnight on Saturday, social distancing seemed a distant memory. There were some modest efforts by staff to shuffle the crowd about, but they were barely and begrudgingly acknowledged.
Here’s security tamely trying to move crowds apart pic.twitter.com/RhrWhhtPBv
— Josh Axelrod (@j0shaxelrod)
From Saturday night’s four-stop bar tour, it became clear that the onus of keeping things under control rests solely on the bars. Given the opportunity, patrons will congregate. But with a proper layout and stricter enforcement of the rules, they can also keep their distance.
That was clearly the case in Long Beach Island at Beach Haven’s Sea Shell Resort & Beach Club. There the early evening vibe was as mellow as could be, with acoustic guitar drifting through the spaced-out venue. Palm trees swayed to the music framed by a pink-crayon-streak of sunset.
The Sea Shell had a number of different sections: tables with umbrellas, beach and lawn chairs around a fire pit, two bars and seating by the pool. Those at the bar were clearly not six feet apart, but every other section was pretty spaced out.
Though severe thunderstorms had been moving through the state and threatening to ruin an evening spent outdoors, the answer to the guitarist’s rendition of “Have You Ever Seen the Rain” was a resounding no.
An hour drive north on Point Pleasant Beach’s boardwalk, Martell’s Tiki Bar was also relatively tame. At the entrance, the bouncer had me remove my mask to check my license as another bouncer readied the plastic bracelet for my wrist.
I asked if I could put it on myself to avoid contact, but he refused my request, and touched my arm. Squirming, thinking of all the other germ-filled arms he had brushed that night, I walked in to find a half-empty spacious venue with no more than 50 patrons around 10 p.m.
One side of the bar was empty while the other side had a few customers chatting casually as they ignored a three-piece band jamming on stage.
Just a few steps down the boardwalk, the usually mobbed Jenk’s Beach Bar proved to be the most well-orchestrated and socially distanced visit of the evening.
Security guards flanked patrons in line, checking IDs and listing the rules. Every party would be shown to their table. Guests must enter with masks and shouldn’t leave their tables once they are seated. Instead, bartenders will come to them.
Patrons seemed surprised by the new layout, usually featuring a horde of partiers atop a sandy dance floor. To house their guests for outdoor dining and drinking, Jenk’s installed tables, each spread generously apart.
Everyone remarked on the drastically different layout for the beachfront venue. The security staff, who were notably nicer than anywhere else, offered to apply hand sanitizer before affixing my bracelet. They said that they are adapting as they go and that every day is an adventure.
On occasion, a few people danced away from their tables in a shaded corner and smoked cigarettes. The rest sat at their assigned spots, contentedly taking in the ocean air and downing shots.
Overall, the experience mirrored the changes at D’Jais my colleague observed on Friday night after a rocky start the previous weekend.
With July 4th weekend ahead - arguably the busiest weekend at the Jersey Shore all summer - that could place additional stress on even the venues that seem to have a good system in place.
New Jersey is also reopening indoor dining \- with 25% capacity limits and a host of other restrictions - on Thursday just in time for the holiday. Atlantic City casinos can also welcome gamblers the same day as the state pushes ahead with Phase 2 of the coronavirus reopening plan.
If the first two weeks of outdoor dining were a test to prepare for the move indoors, there’s still some work to be done, but there are some strong examples of how it can work well.