From the weather to the schools of dolphins and the (mostly) well-behaved crowds, everything and everyone seemed to cooperate at a sprawling oceanfront park Saturday as New Jersey reopened its state parks to a populace itching to get sand between their toes after months of being cooped up due to the coronavirus outbreak.
Island Beach State Park in Ocean County was among the parks to reopen, drawing several hundred people to a beach that routinely handles thousands during the summer.
In the four hours that an Associated Press reporter watched the crowd, almost all of them complied with a requirement that they stay at least six feet apart to prevent the spread of the virus.
That's not to say everyone did, though: a small group of people wearing Rutgers T-shirts over their swimsuits reclined on towels six inches apart instead of six feet. And a few people saw friends on the beach, went up to them and hugged.
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But for the most part, the beachgoers did exactly as they were urged to do by state officials, keeping their distance while having fun in the sun. More than half wore masks, even as strong sunshine bore down on a 70-degree day.
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said he was pleased with initial reports not only from the beachfront park, but from other state parks and some golf courses that also reopened on Saturday.
“So far, go good,” he said during his daily briefing Saturday afternoon.
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The Democratic governor said evaluations of how well beach crowds complied with social distancing rules would go a long way toward deciding when and how the Jersey Shore's famous beaches will reopen.
“I really missed this,” said David Roebuck of Berkeley Township, who was among the first on the sand with his wife, Margie.
“Forty-six days in the house was enough,” she said.
Christina and Theresa Erb of Toms River brought the kids to the beach, giving them a welcome opportunity to run around and burn off energy.
“The kids were going crazy,” Christina Erb said. “They asked, ‘Why did they close nature?’”
“This feels wonderful,” Theresa Erb added. “It feels like a little bit of normality is coming back.”
At 10 a.m., there were 30 people on the sand at Bathing Area 1, the first of several beaches that visitors to the park encounter. By 11, there were 100, and by 2 p.m., several hundred.
The park can accommodate about 1,200 cars. State officials said they planned to close it if capacity reached 50%. By late afternoon, several state parks had reached half their capacity and were closed to additional arrivals
Dogs strained at the leash and sniffed at other dogs as they bounded through the sand. A pair of teenage boys tossed a football back and forth, with hundreds of yards of empty space all around them. Kids dug in the sand, and two large schools of dolphins swam by, delighting beachgoers.