There are beach umbrellas to be rented, burgers to be flipped and amusement park rides to operate, but as the Jersey Shore prepares to welcome Memorial Day weekend fun-seekers there are dark clouds above this COVID-19 re-opening that have nothing to do with the weather forecast.
“Everybody is having some staffing issues right now,” said Amy Russo, owner of Toast, a restaurant in Asbury Park. “Servers have been great but they are a little bit run down right now. We would need about – I would say eight to twelve more people – if they showed up right now, I would hire them on the spot.”
The staffing shortage could not come at a worse time for towns like Asbury Park that thrive on a seasonal economy.
Last summer effectively shut down beach and resort areas and businesses in the Garden State are anticipating a summer economic boon. Some of the last vestiges of the pandemic — the indoor mask mandate in public places and the six-foot social distancing requirement in both indoor and outdoor places – are no longer in effect as of today.
In addition, the prohibition on dance floors at bars and restaurants, as well as the prohibition on ordering and eating/drinking while standing at bars and restaurants was lifted.
While the state won’t be fully reopened until next Friday, June 4 when the indoor gathering and capacity limits will finally be lifted, the moves are music to Jersey Shore business owners’ ears.
“After the year that we have all just had, it is really encouraging to see everybody is back at it. I feel like we are going to have a Jersey Shore summer like we used to,” Russo said.
However, the challenge to fill positions up and down the Jersey shoreline could temper some of the enthusiasm.
“Part of the problem is that the government pays folks more to stay home than to go to work,” said Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, “Paying people not to work is not helpful. It is delaying us from returning to normal pre-pandemic life.”
She is just one of several GOP leaders critical of the Biden administration and Democrats for their refusal to roll back on federal unemployment benefits, which several Republicans say is contributing to the labor shortage.
The shortage has prompted some local government officials to stress patience to visitors with restaurants and businesses, as some may not be ready to handle the influx of new and returning business.
“We are really excited to welcome people back to Asbury Park. If you take anything away from what’s happening, it’s that our businesses are short-staffed and we are all just coming out of this pandemic,” said Amy Quinn, the Deputy Mayor of Asbury Park.
“[Just] know that our business owners were on the brink during this pandemic and that we really ask the people to be respectful if you’re waiting for a table or waiting a little longer for food,” the deputy mayor pleaded.
The customers will be needed: tourism spending in the Garden State reportedly dropped a whopping $17 billion in 2020 according to the Cape May County Chamber of Commerce, falling from $46.4 billion in 2019 to $29.4 billion the following year.
Yet, other business owners warn money will be left on the table if the labor shortage isn’t fixed.
“We [had to make] signs for the table that said ‘sorry this table is closed due to staffing vortex’. It’s not even the end of Memorial Day and people are tired in the industry and they’ve been through a tough year,” said Marilyn Schlossbach, owner of the Langosta Lounge.
“We have money to be made. If you come back into hospitality this year, you’re going to kill it. But in the fall when unemployment [benefits] are gone, there is going to be no bank for this,” she predicted.
Many are at a loss for answers on how to solve the crisis, but some evidence towards a solution may have appeared this week.
The premature loss of unemployment benefits in two dozen states caused a modest uptick in job searches, according to a new analysis published by Indeed this week.
Job search activity reportedly rose by 5% the day each of the 24 Republican states announced their plans to cut off the sweetened aid according to the same data.