There are plenty of things we may grumble about in life … but not too much, because we know the tradeoff is worth it in the end. Paying taxes? Ugh! On the other hand, one gets accustomed to things like roads, bridges, firefighters, trash removal, and the like—plus the penalty for not paying taxes is less than ideal. Dental appointments? Also “ugh,” but we do it because it’s short-term pain for long-term gain. Housebreaking a puppy? Well, you get the picture.
And if you live in or visit Cape May in the summertime, there is the beach tag—a small, brightly colored bit of plastic that you affix to your bathing suit or tote bag or some other visible spot, so the tagger at the beach entrance can see it. It might feel weird to shell out money to sit by (or in) the ocean, but the bang for your buck is real—and so is the enthusiasm for these tiny bits of beach memorabilia. We’ll get to that second part in a bit.
As a quick rundown, beach tags are available in daily, three-day, weekly, or seasonal iterations, at a cost of $8, $15, $20, and $30, respectively—with a $5 discount on seasonal tags purchased by April 1. Tags must be displayed by anyone over age 12 for beach access between the hours of 10am and 5pm from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
Beach tags were implemented in Cape May in 1977, 46 years ago. And for 26 of those years, Ed Rotz has been the Beach Tag Supervisor for the city. As such, he oversees a staff of about 70. That may sound like a lot of people, but many of them work part-time. “We have over 30 beaches to cover. So that takes one tagger for each ramp,” Ed told us. “Then we have four kiosks that are strategically located across the beachfront where you can buy them. On a fully staffed day, there are probably about 38 taggers working.” If you happen to show up at the beach without a tag, you can also purchase them directly from the tagger, who is equipped with each type.
There are two other types of tags. “We also have a veteran tag and a commercial tag,” Ed said. “The veteran tags are free. They’re available if you’re a veteran and have a proper ID. And if you’re an active-duty serviceman with ID, you can get a free tag for you, your spouse, and any children 12 and above. And then commercial tags are for people with a residential mercantile license who are renting out their place. The commercial tag is $100.”
Money Well Spent
So where does the revenue from all these beach tags actually go? We went right to the top for an answer on this. “No one wants to be in the position of defending any taxes or fees,” said Cape May Mayor Zack Mullock. “But the fact is that beach tags are probably the fairest form of ‘taxes.’ They are paid for by the users and the funds go directly into the Beach Utility, which is self-liquidating. This means that every penny from beach tag sales goes directly to the beach [to pay] for lifeguards, bathrooms, trash collection, sand raking, and more.”
The money isn’t just used to maintain the day-to-day operations of the beach, either. “Within the last two years we have upgraded every beachfront bathroom, adding heat to some as well,” the mayor said. “We have also made major upgrades to our emergency PA system, and we have expanded speakers northeast toward Poverty Beach. We are also actively adding foot-wash stations to over 15 entrances, and we have expanded beach accessibility mats to every beach.”
These are all excellent examples of money well spent, but it doesn’t stop there, he said. “All of these are improvements made possible by beach tag sales. But most important of all, we have one of the finest Beach Patrols in the country. Last year we were able to extend the guarded season. And personally, having traveled a good bit to other beach towns, I have yet to see the professionalism and number of guards per beach as there are here in Cape May.”
Local resident Tracey Martin, like Mayor Mullock, was born and raised here in Cape May, but her interest in beach tags is a different one: she collects them as a hobby. And she’s not the only one; you’ll find them online and in local antique shops, too.
“I now have at least one of every regular seasonal tag,” Tracey told us. “There were some special tags issued over the years, plus military tags and now the commercial ones, but I just focused on the regular seasonal tags.” While sorting through her collection in early 2021, she realized she had all but four years, and set out to remedy that. “I didn’t want to buy them on eBay, so I put it out on Instagram that I wanted to trade for the missing years. Some friends reached out to make trades, and a woman I only knew through Instagram was in town and found one of the missing tags in an antique shop. She didn’t want to trade, she just gave it to me as a gift, which I thought was so sweet.”
Her collection was finished while holding her own yard sale last year. “A man asked if I had any beach tags, and I did have a couple from Ocean City,” Tracey said. “He asked about Cape May, and I told him that I collected them and wouldn’t sell them, but that I’d trade if he had either of the ones that I was missing, 1979 and 1986. He went out to his van and had both, so I traded him from some of my doubles. Best yard sale I ever had.”
While collecting beach tags might seem like a “tourist” thing to do, for Tracey, it runs a bit deeper than that. “It’s a bit of local history. I’m a beach lover, and my mom is too, so I have memories of those images on the beach tags,” she said. “I remember being a kid and seeing the old folks wearing hats that had loads of tags on them, and thinking to myself that they were weirdos. And, yes, I see the irony here, although I don’t wear mine on hats!”
Martin’s collecting bug bit in “…high school or college—my mom gave me a tag from 1978 that she found. I thought that was cool and started keeping my tags from then on. Years later, I was talking with a lady at church about beach tags. Her parents had owned a rooming house next door to my grandparents. She said she thought she had some old beach tags, and a few weeks later, she brought me a box. It was filled with multiples of old tags—starting with 1977, the first year—a treasure trove. And where her collection ended was pretty much where mine picked up.”
Tracey’s favorite tag is from 1986, the Space Shuttle edition. She was interested in space as a kid and saw the Challenger disaster live on television. It appeared on the tag that summer. Her spare tags are on display in a glass vase in her kitchen. “Right now, the complete collection is still in the box that was given to me by the lady at church,” Tracey said. “I want to frame them by decade and hang them, but I’m trying to figure out how to do that properly. I don’t want to mount them without the pins—they look naked without the pins—but with the pins, they don’t lay flat. I’ll figure it out. I’m a patient person.”
A Day in the Life
So, what’s it like in the trenches, a day in the life of a beach tagger? We found Janet Perry and Gail Jacquinto in the promenade kiosk at Howard Street—with 25 and 35 years on the job, respectively. Gail “walked for 10, sat [at an entrance] for 10,” and now staffs the office and the kiosk. “You meet a lot of friendly people,” she said. “A few arrogant people give you push back on the cost and expect it to be free. Once you explain it, though, they are very kind.”
Janet concurs. “Once you explain the process, they fall in love with our beaches, and they always come back.” She said that during active COVID, the job demands were a bit rough, given that they had to regulate social distance on the beach—at least to the degree that they could. A supervisor these days, “I have a very good crew now,” she says of the taggers in her charge.
Over at Queen Street Beach, Barbie is in her fifth year as a tagger. When her husband passed, her sister suggested it, and she started the next day. “I love it,” she told us. “You get to meet new people. A lot of the locals and tourists come to surf and swim. They come back every summer, so I get to see the kids grow up.”
She, too, has had her moments with belligerent beachgoers. “You get some people who insist that they have been coming here for years and that it is free,” Barbie said. “One time I had to chase a guy down the beach for $8. But mostly, the people are friendly. They give me presents, bring me food; there is a real sense of community.”
That sense of community extends to her colleagues, she said, explaining that the taggers will sit for each other’s lunch breaks, or if they need to leave their post for some other reason. “Everybody helps each other.”
The Nuts and Bolts
If you don’t want to dig into your tote bag as you’re at the beach entrance, family, beach buggy, and cooler in tow, get them in advance. In addition to the places already mentioned here, you can purchase them at City Hall starting each December—and don’t forget that discount prior to the start of the season. Pro tip: they make great stocking stuffers or gifts for your favorite Cape May lover. They’re available during the season at the Beach Tag HQ at 704 Beach Avenue on the promenade.
But this year, a new element was added to the beach tag buying process, according to Mayor Mullock. They are now available online.
Starting in 2023, the city has partnered with Jersey Cape Tags (jerseycapetags.com), a division of Jersey Cape Diagnostic, Training, and Opportunity Center, Inc., to facilitate online sales of tags that can be shipped directly to the buyer. “I wanted to be sure to highlight them—their story is very cool,” Mayor Mullock said. Jersey Cape Tags is an employment training center for adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities and provides training opportunities for them to acquire job-related skills and employment.
So, whether you’re buying them for a day or for the whole season, purchasing beach tags isn’t something to grumble about—think of it as an investment, both in your own relaxation and in the Cape May community. Splurge for a weekend with the three-day tag. “I’m not certain, but I’m pretty sure we’re the only town in the State of New Jersey that even offers a three-day beach tag,” said Ed Rotz.
We’re hard-pressed to think of a better way to spend 15 bucks than a weekend sitting on the beach in Cape May.