by Cody McLaughlin - Wednesday, May 20, 2020
The COVID-19 pandemic has upended life in many states, but few states as strongly as New Jersey. As a Garden State resident, early on I watched New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy make the unprecedented move to close gun shops, a decision that later would be reversed due to pressure from the White House and gun rights groups led by the NRA. When the order was reversed, National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) checks still were not being processed, and another battle round was fought to get them back online. Now that the state’s gun stores are open for curbside pickup and appointment-only service, they are seeing a resurgence in activity from an increasingly bored public striving to get outdoors while maintaining responsible social distancing guidelines.
The NRA Hunter’s Leadership Forum website recently caught up with Skip Opdyke, owner of Skip’s Outdoors, a hunting and fishing store in Lambertville, N.J. Opdyke discussed the impacts of COVID-19 on his business and on the outdoor culture in general.
How has COVID-19 affected your business and that of other outdoor shops?
Opdyke claims that at first, business was great—not just for gun sales but for other outdoor sports from fishing to hunting. But then he said the order to shutter gun stores as nonessential businesses combined with the problems that ensued with NICS checks “really put a bind on us.” While the shutdown was in place and NICS checks were not working, his shop did no business.
“Before the shutdown we were having our best year ever, not just with guns and ammo but fishing and archery,” said Opdyke. “Dozens of people were coming in saying, ‘Man, I haven’t been fishing in 20 years.’ Moms were coming in saying, ‘Do you have the gear so I can take the kids fishing?’ It was nuts.”
Then in early April, Gov. Murphy shut down state and county parks and forests, which would prove to be one of his most controversial decisions. All the closures hurt, according to Opdyke, because of the loss of access to popular fishing spots for kids and families and key turkey hunting land on state forests. When that order finally was rescinded, people were eager to get out more. As a result, Opdyke is pleased to share that his store has done well.
In your opinion, has this impacted the R3 movement to recruit, retain and reactivate new hunters?
“Absolutely,” said Opdyke, who has witnessed R3’s goals in terms of hunter recruitment, retention and reactivation being met firsthand. “Turkey permits sold out this year for this and the neighboring zone. I have people coming in who haven’t hunted or fished for 20 years getting gear, buying licenses and getting back out there. And I have been proud to see the moms taking their kids fishing.”
Opdyke estimates that 20-25 percent of his customer base right now is entirely new to the outdoor sports and that, even with the shutdowns of his shop, he is on pace to beat last year’s sales.
How have the arbitrary orders here in New Jersey affected gun and ammunition sales?
At first, when gun stores were shuttered and NICS checks were later offline, Opdyke said people were angry. “Thankfully, they were very understanding with us and not really mad at me, but they were very upset with the governor when the NICS stuff was down,” he said. “You have to understand, I have regular customers like, for instance, police officers who come in and buy ammo, and I couldn’t sell it to them either. And that is awkward.”
How did the COVID-19 pandemic affect the spring turkey season?
Due to an early shutdown of state and county parks and forests in early April, many turkey hunters lost access to key turkey hunting land on the state’s more than 200,000 acres of state forests. The NRA and several other hunter-backed groups sent a letter to state governors respectfully urging them to open public lands for “America’s most traditional form of social distancing.” On Apr. 9, an expanded coalition of groups sent a letter to governors as well as mayors, county officials and state wildlife agencies requesting that hunting, fishing and other outdoor sports be added to the list of essential activities during the COVID-19 pandemic. N.J. closures were rescinded two weeks into the season, and people were eager to get outdoors.
“Last year, in this [turkey management] zone and the neighboring zone, there were quite a few permits left over. This year they are all sold out,” said Opdyke. “Big uptick in turkey hunting. Guys who haven’t hunted in years are coming in saying, ‘Past couple years, I haven’t been able to go out and now I am laid off with extra time or a modified schedule and I want to get out there.’”
But when Gov. Murphy closed the parks, things got confusing, Opdyke explained. While Wildlife Management Areas were kept open, parks and forests were closed. Local wildlife conservation wardens were concerned about hikers flocking into WMAs where hunters were chasing turkeys.
Overall, has the scenario turned out to be good or bad when it comes to enjoying the outdoors?
While Opdyke said the situation bolstered his business and outdoor sports, he emphasized that the one thing that did hurt everything was government shutdowns of shops and parks. “I don’t think the shutdowns were prudent,” he said. “I think it is possible to keep a little distance with masks and that would work fine. At a certain point, we limit our capacity on our own.” In fact, he added, “Everyone has been very supportive, 90 percent of customers were thanking us for being open.”
“This whole thing has really given people a chance to get back outdoors and reconnect with nature,” concluded Opdyke. “I realize it [the COVID-19 threat] is real, but I think you should just keep on living anyway.
Well said, Mr. Opdyke.
About the Author
Cody McLaughlin is a noted conservationist and conservative thought leader on public policy issues including hunting, fishing, gun rights, free-market tax and wage policy and the environment. He works as a GOP consultant for conservative political causes, managing clients’ digital communications and online presence and as a trustee of the New Jersey Outdoor Alliance helping to represent the state’s 1.2 million sportsmen in the political arena.
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