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Cape May County Tourism Director Diane Wieland.

The pandemic devastated tourism in Cape May County last year, especially impacting large-scale off-season events that normally generate 23% of the county’s tourism revenues. And the outlook for 2021 looks bleak, local officials say, unless the state provides clearer, more sensible rules affecting outdoor event attendance.

“Reasonable capacity guidelines need to be in place, or we will continue to lose visitors and revenue as these events are cancelled,” Diane Wieland, director of the Cape May County Department of Tourism, said at a recent New Jersey Business Coalition online town hall. “They all want to provide safe venues, but we need a plan now, they need to work now.”

Wieland said that beyond the outdoor summer festivals, there are also large and small off-season tourism events typically scheduled in the spring, fall and winter that are important to the local economy. Overnight visitors spend an average of $374 each per day, she said.

“Cape May County’s year-end tourism loss is 23.7% based on (hotel) occupancy tax collection,” Wieland said. “This is equal to $1.6 billion in spending – or $1 out of every $4 generated in 2019 lost to COVID in 2020.”

Wieland said smaller events produced by arts and history organizations lost $1 million in gate fees in 2020 and it is difficult for these groups to plan for 2021 when the state’s occupancy restrictions for indoor and outdoor gatherings changes so often.

“Their profits are marginal, and they cannot afford to meet the cost of continual and incremental changes being made, and they can’t afford to open with reduced audience capacity,” Wieland said.

“Signature events are on hold too due to changing capacity restrictions that make it impossible to plan for 2021,” Wieland added. The Ocean City Block Party, which has a $7 million impact on the local economy, had to be cancelled this spring for the second year in a row because of the governor’s latest executive order restricts outdoor gatherings to 200 people, she said.

The cancellation of the Skimmer Weekend Festival in Sea Isle City in 2020 also caused big financial losses in food and beverage sales, Wieland said. The cancellation of Wildwood’s Fabulous 50’s & Beyond Weekend last year, which normally attracts 20,000 and generates $5 million for the local economy was also a big loss.

About 100 people, including legislators, attended the March 18 online New Jersey Business Coalition town hall on the state of New Jersey businesses.