(May 29, 2020) After a strenuous debate on Tuesday, the Ocean City Council voted to remove the caution tape and boards from the city’s Boardwalk benches.
Mayor Rick Meehan had disapproved of the use of caution tape and plywood in favor of moving the benches, and asked the council last week to further discuss the issue.
In response, City Public Works Director Hal Adkins explained to City Manager Doug Miller in an email why moving the benches might not be the right approach.
“Physical distancing is not achievable even on a single bench,” he said. “Short of a verbal fight between users, nothing stops one couple from sitting next to another couple, per se.”
Additionally, many of the benches, according to Adkins, were dedicated benches and were owned by individual purchasers.
“The locations of each dedicated bench is of extreme importance to the purchaser and is tied to, in most cases, family memories of the loved one(s) and where they would normally sit when visiting Ocean City,” he said. “In a typical year, if we shift, remove or slightly relocate a bench, we get blasting emails from the owner for it to be returned to its dedicated location.”
Adkins also asked city officials to think about the act of relocating the benches, because tram paths, private property and even the slope of some areas were all obstacles that would have to be overcome.
In light of these issues, as well as others addressed in Adkins’ email, staff recommended that all boards and caution tape be removed immediately, and that no benches be removed or relocated.
Several council members favored the recommendation, and noted that from their perspective, guests were voluntarily social distancing and wearing facemasks.
“I’ve been open every day through all of this, and 99 percent of the people are social distancing by themselves [and] they are wearing masks,” said Council President Lloyd Martin, who owns 7-Eleven convenience stores.
Mayor Rick Meehan strongly opposed the recommendation.
“I couldn’t disagree more with the action that’s being taken by the council,” Meehan said.
Meehan said during his walks on the Boardwalk, he had never seen anyone fight over the benches or overcrowd them, and echoed Martin’s opinion that people were voluntarily social distancing.
But he also said, “I see a lack of foresight here, a lack of vision. I think we took the easy way, which is not the Ocean City way,” Meehan said. “If you look at all of our business, they have to adhere to restrictions, they’re investing money, they’re doing things to try to create social distancing and adhere to restrictions ... and here we are, the Town of Ocean City, and we’re not following that same roadmap. We should be leading by example, we should be showing what we can do to help social distance.”
As for the bench dedications, Meehan said he understood the concerns, but he stressed that the benches would be moved back to their proper locations once things returned to normal.
“Lead by example, so when the pictures are taken, and it’s not just for the photo-op, you see that the Town of Ocean City took the steps to do what was right,” Meehan said.
Councilman Dennis Dare asked his colleagues whether they believed social distancing guidelines would be relaxed by October, to which several shook their heads no.
“So why wouldn’t we make the effort now to be in compliance with social distancing for the balance of the season?” Dare said. “We made the national news this weekend for all of the wrong reasons, and if we make these benches available without the proper distancing between benches, we’re asking for more negative publicity.”
This past weekend, several photos of Ocean City went viral on social media and traditional media outlets, after images showed packs of guests shoulder to shoulder.
Some of those photos, particularly those published by Reuters, have come under fire because the kind of telephoto lenses that might have been used to take them compress the images so objects in the photos look closer together than they actually are.
“We should be setting an example with what we can control,” Dare said. “Obviously having people wear masks or social distance on the Boardwalk, we’ve proven we can’t control that.”
Councilman Matt James, who had made the motion to approve the tape and board removal, clarified that his request did not negate any further conversations to move benches.
“I think we can still lead by example and open the benches or keep the benches on the Boardwalk and make them available for people to sit on. I don’t think we need to keep trying to tell everybody how to live their lives,” James said.
He said the city has taken measures to guide guests, such as the social distancing signs, but it was up for people to be responsible and social distance.
“It’s been said many times, if people are at risk they’re going to take the precautions, or they should take the precautions, to keep themselves and their families protected,” James said.
Councilwoman Mary Knight said while she initially thought the benches should be six-feet apart, in the end, it didn’t really matter, as space between benches did nothing to separate those sitting on the benches and walking on the Boardwalk.
“As you sit there, people walk 18 inches, or 12 inches right in front of you, so there’s no way you can do 360 degrees of social distancing on the Boardwalk regardless,” Knight said.
She also said she did not want to take away potential seating for Boardwalk restaurants restricted to carryout services.
Meehan maintained his stance, and said he did not agree with removing the boards and the tape unless the benches were moved.
“How do we come to a collective mediation…?” Paddack said, who expressed his support for all perspectives. “I agree Mr. Mayor, and I’m going to ask Councilman James to amend his motion that we tell the dog we want the bench seats spread out and moved around the Boardwalk for the remainder of the summer.”
Councilman John Gehrig took issue with Paddack’s use of the term “dog” in reference to public works staff.
“I think you just let a word slip, Mark, about the dog, tell the dog,” Gehrig said. “All of our first responders and all of our public safety [officers] deserve the accolades and prayers and everything they receive. You know who never gets respect, prayers or much gratitude? Our public works [employees], and to sit here and rail on them — we just had a prayer service and not one person prayed for any of the other staff in Ocean City.”
Gehrig said the council needed to be more respectful, give clear directives and to look beyond just the optics of moving benches.
Paddack clarified dog referred to the council, and not public works employees.
The council voted four to two to remove the tape and boards, with Dare and Gehrig opposed and Councilman Tony DeLuca absent.
“I’ll get with Doug and Hal, and the mayor as well, and see if we can move some of these benches to where it makes sense so we have a little bit of a compromise,” Martin said.