Recent Colonel Richardson High School graduates Rontay Holmes,… (JOEY GARDNER, Baltimore…)
OCEAN CITY — — The infestation has only just begun.
There were only a few of them on Ocean City's boardwalk Thursday night, but within a week, the incident reports will start to spike, and so will the alcohol citations for minors. Buses will become crowded again. Traffic will swell with unreliable drivers. The June bugs will have arrived.
An average of 4 million people come to this resort town every year — an estimated 200,000-250,000 this past Memorial Day weekend — but the crowd that local businesses and the town brace themselves for are the graduating high school seniors who, in a ritual exercise in excess, take over for several weeks in June.
"We've had years that are pretty hellacious," says Lee Gerachis, owner of Malibu's Surf Shop on the boardwalk. "I mean trouble. Each year is a different set of problems. Some years they all think they're UFC fighters, some years they think they're all hippies."
Loath to discourage any kind of business, especially after a soft 2009 summer, city officials and businesses welcome the young with doubled police presence, plainclothes officers checking in on clubs and bars, free PG-13 events for the entire month of June and foam parties instead of keggers.
"When you've got that many young people in one place, we're not naive enough to think that nothing's going to happen," said Donna Greenwood, chairwoman of the city's Play it Safe program, which organizes the monthlong alcohol-free events. "We're offering an alternative to partying and doing things that could cause problems for them. It helps our residents, too. You don't want the kids running wild and making a ruckus, which a lot of them do."
Parents do their part, too, taking their children to lectures on the potential dangers of Senior Week. And, this year, there's even a parent-chaperoned party bus.
Local businesses view the teens with mixed emotions. They're a nuisance, but they're a profitable nuisance.
"As a business we don't have any problems with them. They don't walk out on tabs or anything like that," said Katie Kernan, who manages the Bull on the Beach restaurant. "It's more of a local feeling against them because they come in and they don't respect the town. They leave a lot of litter in their wake. They treat the town, essentially, like it's their bedroom."
Police anticipate anywhere from 8,000 to 14,000 teens throughout the summer, said Jessica Waters, a spokeswoman for the department. They start arriving sometime before Memorial Day, and continue through June and, to a lesser extent, July and August. And they come not just from Maryland, but from across the Mid-Atlantic.
It's an opportunity to celebrate for the first time, for many of them, without parental supervision.
"It's fun. You just get drunk all week," said 18-year-old Kyle Showver, who was in town for the weekend but will return later in June for a whole week with friends.
One way to tell when the recent graduates are in town is by looking at the number of minors cited for trying to buy alcohol with fake IDs or illegal possession of alcohol. Last summer, there were a total of 1,203 citations, including juveniles and those between the ages of 18 and 20, and 814 were issued just in the month of June, Waters said.
Those numbers have stayed constant since at least 2007, when there were 1,244.
Mayor Rick Meehan said the influx of young adults creates "challenges" for the town. Calls for service jump — last year from 2,500 in April to nearly 14,000 in June, according to police. Noise issues arise. Teens cluster around the boardwalk.
They're creative only in the sorts of trouble they get into: going for midnight swims, drunken driving, crossing streets in front of traffic. Mike Levy, a spokesman for the Police Department and a patrol officer, recalled years ago when seniors used to climb from balcony to balcony at their rented hotel rooms.
"It's the first rite of passage for many of these young adults," Meehan said. "They're going to test the system a little bit every year, and we're going to enforce our rules every year."
And so, the town has come up with contingency plans that keep the partying teens occupied, without inciting them to run amok.
The Play It Safe program has been around for about 22 years, but what started out as a weekly dance after graduation has swelled to fill up a whole month.
"Now we have over 60 events over three weeks," Greenwood said, including beach volleyball tournaments, pancake-eating contests and tie-dyeing classes. Before each summer, some 50,000 booklets, with coupons and safety instructions, are sent out to high schools across the state, according to the Worcester County Health Department. Twenty thousand others are distributed to businesses around Ocean City.