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‘They’re Just Doing Whatever They Want’: Few Masks Are Seen as Beach Town Reopens

OCEAN CITY, Md. — Dave Heyburn and Nevada Kaler viewed their weekend on this seaside boardwalk as an escape from the coronavirus “red zone” where they live, in Elverson, Pa. Neither wore masks, which are not required to be worn outdoors here.

The illness at home is “always in the back of your mind,” said Ms. Kaler, a part-time nursing assistant standing alongside her husband, who was enjoying the sunshine on a newly reopened public bench. “But you’ve got to live your life.”

That outlook appeared pervasive among the thousands of maskless vacationers who flocked to Ocean City for the beginning of the Greater Washington region’s emergence from coronavirus lockdown this weekend. Earlier in the week, on Memorial Day, photos of people strolling cheek-to-jowl on the teeming boardwalk appalled public health officials and prompted warnings about a potential new surge in cases.

This weekend brought little apparent change. Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland has emphasized that the state is only at Phase 1 of his “Roadmap to Recovery,” a step toward normalcy that still requires the public to abide by restrictions to keep the virus from spreading.

Yet the crowds out enjoying the spring weather in Ocean City suggested a different mentality.

“They’re just doing whatever they want,” said Aaron Gusler, a surf rescue technician — meaning lifeguard — for the Ocean City Beach Patrol.

“People come up here with a vacation mind-set,” he said. Mr. Gusler is from Harrisonburg, Va., where he feels the pandemic has been impossible to ignore. But in Ocean City, “It’s weird. It’s like it’s not even happening.”

Lifeguards patrol the water, not the big clusters of sunbathers on the beach, where groups of as many as 42 people gathered on the sand early Friday.

“They told us to stay as far away from them as you can, and do your job,” he said. The beach patrol gave its employees N95 masks, but Mr. Gusler did not have his on. He said he didn’t want to smear the blue-toned zinc oxide sunscreen coating his nose.

“I’m sure it’ll spike again around here,” he said of the virus. “I’m just glad I have a job, man.”

Most of those eating, strolling and sunning on the boardwalk Friday shunned masks. “I work in a Covid hospital and I don’t care,” said Brandy Unger, who said she is a nurse at WellSpan York Hospital in Pennsylvania. “It’s the flu.”

Her husband, Hunter Unger, a mechanic, said, shrugging, “I work on all kind of random people’s cars, and eh.”

By the governor’s order, face coverings are required inside businesses, but at the Quiet Storm Surf Shop, a clerk folding T-shirts said, “we make them optional.” On the boardwalk outside, a police officer who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the news media said, “the problem is merchants have to enforce” the mask order, but many are reluctant to alienate their first customers of the summer.

“They’re supposed to document violations and report them to the health department,” he said. The police — who were issuing $100 tickets to people vaping on the boardwalk Friday — do not cite mask violators.

At Flashback Old Time Photos, where patrons don vintage-looking costumes to pose for portraits against faux-historical backdrops the only masks offered were for customers who wanted to dress like cowboy bank robbers.

“We’re doing good cleaning surfaces, keeping our masks on and staying six feet away,” said Sue McCrodden, the shop manager. The store’s employees try to spray the costumes with Lysol after each use, and launder them at the end of each day, she said.

“If we keep telling people to keep their masks on, it’s going to stress them out and we want them to have a good time,” said Doyinsola Adebakin, an employee.

“What are we going to do?” Ms. McCrodden asked. “We can’t lose money.”

Michael Cantine, who owns Fat Cats Airbrush, which makes personalized T-shirts and toys, said this opening week has been busier than the same time last year because children are out of school. To operate the store safely, he and his staff initially installed Plexiglas barricades, donned face masks and moved all their stock behind a counter so customers couldn’t handle it. A week later, that’s all been undone.

“People were going around” the barriers, removing their masks to pay for merchandise and leaving them on the counters, he said. “It blew me away, the lack of concern.”

Mr. Cantine said he had also given up on wearing a mask inside his shop because his airbrush easel faced the wall, not customers.

“People are spending money,” he said, maybe because the big amusement parks, restaurants and larger bars have not fully opened.

As of Friday night, restaurants were allowed to serve outdoors only, bringing a flood of patrons to tables that were supposed to be set six feet apart.

“In a lot of photos, the boardwalk looks very congested,” said Mr. Cantine. “But if you took an aerial view, you could see the spacing.”

Not all the tourists were nonchalant about following health restrictions. Sitting on the wall dividing the boardwalk from the beach, Kelly and Dan Goddard, who live in a Baltimore suburb, were wearing masks. Their children were sporting tie-dyed cloth ones sewn by relatives.

Mr. Goddard, an accountant, said that when he and his wife packed up Cameron, 7, and Nash, 4, for a day trip to Ocean City on Friday, “we expected 50/50,” meaning that half of vacationers would wear masks. “But this is like 10 percent, maybe.”

Ms. Goddard said she had just quit her job as a nurse in a long-term care facility in Catonsville to protect her family, after half the patients tested positive for the coronavirus, and 19 died.

“This is the first time we’ve been out in a couple of months, except for the grocery store,” she said.

“There are a lot of unknowns and not a lot of real clear guidance,” Mr. Goddard said. “But I don’t think people realize how serious things are, or they don’t care.”

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