(July 10, 2020) In a health-before-wealth vote on Tuesday, the Ocean City Transportation Committee agreed to advise the City Council not to operate trams this summer, as covid-19’s grip on the nation remains firm and unrelenting.
“We, as a town, are already suffering …” Councilman Dennis Dare said, noting that the council has been accused of putting wealth before health. “I firmly believe we have to put health before wealth in everything we do as a town.”
The financial gravity of the decision was not lost to committee members. As explained by city government Budget Manager Jennie Knapp, leaving the trams idle for the season would result in a $1.7 million loss, and that would require drawing from the city’s general fund balance to make up the difference in the transportation fund.
City officials had budgeted a $1.1 million loss in fiscal year 2021 under the assumption some tram operation would take place.
“If the trams do not run, the general fund would have to contribute an additional $600,000 to the bus division that would normally be covered by profit from the tram division,” Knapp said. “Depending on the level of operating loss in the bus division, funds from the CARES grant could cover a portion of the additional loss.”
Regardless of trams or no trams, the city would have to cover $326,408 worth of fixed costs, as the CARES Act funds, administered by the Maryland Transit Administration, does not cover anything for the tram division.
“I see a problem with the trams with the crowds on the Boardwalk as they [trams] go down the Boardwalk,” Mayor Rick Meehan said. “Especially when they’re [trams] passing each other, forcing people to be closer together, very close together.”
“This is a tough decision here,” Councilman Mark Paddack added. “Is it worth doing it for just the amusement aspect on the Boardwalk for two months? I don’t have the answer to that.”
Paddack also suggested that running the trams could help the city “break even” on losses.
Meehan asked Public Works Director Hal Adkins whether it would be possible to operate the trams late in the summer or early fall when crowds died down, and Adkins replied that it would be.
Nevertheless, Meehan reiterated his concerns over the trams crowding the Boardwalk, noting the resort’s recent bad publicity.
Dare agreed, and shared additional concerns.
“How many complaints have you received about the trams not running through July 7,” Dare asked Meehan, City Manager Doug Miller and Adkins.
Noting that, aside from a few questions, no complaints had been made, Dare said people don’t see the trams as an essential mode of travel and saw it as more of an amusement or an added value item.
He also said that, despite initial conversations about what the committee assumed August covid-19 restrictions would look like, Gov. Larry Hogan has made it clear his approach to recovery would be conservative, and Dare doubted public transit restrictions would loosen by then.
“Personally, I think it’s [Hogan’s plan] paid off,” Dare said. “A month or two ago, some people were saying the governor of Florida [Ron DeSantis] had the right idea to open things up, and today it looks like he didn’t have such a good path forward in the end.”
Florida is currently seeing record number of covid-19 case rates —11,458 on July 4 — and counties, particularly in the southern portion of the state, have rolled back reopenings.
Dare then spoke about tram drivers and how they were not only at risk in contracting the virus, but in dealing with “passionately” disobedient guests.
“I have a relative who works in an environment where they have to enforce the mask, and they’ve been coughed in their face, and people are just passionate about not wearing a mask,” he said. “Why would we open a nonessential service and put additional employees at risk?”
Paddack, repeating Dare’s “health over wealth” statement, made the motion to recommend not operating the trams, which passed three to one.
Councilman Tony DeLuca was the sole opposition vote, not because he was opposed to the decision, but because he felt the committee was not ready to make a recommendation and wanted to hear from the full council.