SEASIDE HEIGHTS — The ongoing coronavirus restrictions continues to force the cancellation of major spring events, the latest being the annual Special Olympics Polar Bear Plunge.

The annual event hosted by New Jersey 101.5's Big Joe Henry raised $2.5 million last year and had already been postponed from its usual date at the end of February to April 17. Now the event will be virtual and called "Plunge Your Own Way" with plungers instead recording their "plunge" on video and posting.

"We made the very, very difficult decision to cancel the in-person component of the plunge this year. It's our 28th year," Special Olympics New Jersey President and CEO Heather Andersen told New Jersey 1015. "The reasoning behind was the safety concern from plungers to spectators to organizers with the challenging times we're in and with the pandemic."

The decision was made after consulting with the organizers of the annual Torch Run, the borough of Seaside Heights and medical experts, according to Andersen. The logistics of the event also necessitated a decision nine weeks out rather than waiting.

"This event is a huge undertaking. Last year we had over 8,000 plungers. The logistics of organizing the event and setting up in Seaside and the law enforcement component. And there is still a lot of unknown in regards to where we're going to be with outdoor gatherings, what we're going to be allowed to do and social distancing the social distancing piece," Andersen said.

Plungers for the Seaside Heights event as well as the earlier event in Wildwood are instead invited to focus on being creative to virtually be "freezin' for a reason." Registration for both events is $25 and individuals must raise a minimum of $100 to participate. The deadline for Wildwood is March 27 and Seaside Heights is April 17.

"We're already hearing a lot of people are coming up with great ideas of what they're going to do with their virtual plunge like shooting water guns at themselves to dumping water on their head," Andersen said. Other ideas include using water balloons, a kiddie pool or even a hot tub.

The virtual "plunge" can take place anytime until April 17 and be submitted via video to be posted on the Plunge's social media and website.

Teams and groups that have already registered for the plunge or have participated in the past will be notified via email.

"I certainly am disappointed as the thousands of other polar bear plungers out there who want to participate in the Seaside Heights Polar Bear Plunge for Special Olympics. However certainly I understand what's going on around us everyday with the COVID-19 pandemic," Plunge chairman Kevin Burke told New Jersey 101.5. "While disappointed, we certainly understand the decision to make this call to postpone and go all virtual."

Burke said that taking the event online means the event will likely not match last year's amount and hopes it means 2022's event will be the best ever.

"We've been going up every year and we would hope with this year of because of COVID-19 that we would have a bigger year in 2022," Burke said.

Andersen agreed matching last year's amount will be challenging without the opportunity to jump in the ocean but said it's important to support the Special Olympic athletes because many have been isolated during the pandemic unable to take part in their usual sports, social and community events.

"We just need everyone's support this year. We need people to remember our athletes right now, an underserved population during normal times. Raise that $100 and raise more if you can. Every dollar that is raised is going to support our 26,000 athletes and their families as we start to come back into in person programs hopefully by the middle of the year," Andersen said.

With Ocean County St. Patrick's Day Parade, the plunge also signaled the end of winter for many with the first two trips of the year to Seaside Heights.

"These are things that we have to live with for now and hopefully in the near future we can get back to some kind of normalcy that the public can participate in," Seaside Heights Mayor Tony Vaz said Thursday.

It's also another setback for bars and restaurant struggling with capacity limits and curfew brought on by the pandemic. Normally they would be packed for both events. The weekend was also big for hotels, motels and rentals for participants who would spend a few days in Seaside Heights.

"People come down, they're in motel rooms, apartments, they stay for the weekend. It is a rental weekend. People come down and spend two or three days," Vaz said.

Vaz hopes to see things a bit more normal by the time Memorial Day arrives for the unofficial start of summer in May.

"I think with the vaccination being out and more and more people taking the vaccination if that proves to be successful we could have a normal summer," Vaz said.

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