Provincetown, Long A Haven For Outsiders, Debates How Wide To Open Its Doors
PROVINCETOWN, Mass. ― Rob Anderson needs to earn $2 million in the next 12 weeks.
Normally, that would be an unremarkable achievement for the co-owner of the Canteen, a popular counter-service restaurant in Provincetown. During a typical summer, as many as 65,000 people fly, ferry or drive 60 miles along the hooked peninsula of Cape Cod to arrive at this three-square-mile oasis of art galleries, bed-and-breakfasts, beaches, and rainbow flags. They stroll down Commercial Street, where the Canteen occupies prime real estate, brushing elbows against the cars brave (or stupid) enough to try to make it down the main drag in the middle of the day.
The restaurant’s 60-person staff dishes out lobster rolls, fish tacos, Brussels sprouts and frosé (that’s a rosé slushie) to the crowds that pack into its backyard. More than 9,000 lobster rolls and 10,000 frosés pass across the counter in August alone. By the time a normal summer ends, sales will hit Anderson’s target, which is a good thing because like many businesses in town, the Canteen pays virtually all of its bills for the year from the money it pulls in during several hectic weeks.
“We have a saying here,” Anderson told me. “Summer seats pay for winter heat.”
By October, having brought in some $200 million in tourism during its high season, Provincetown will empty out to less than 3,000 year-round residents and again resemble the small fishing village it once was. Much of the housing stock will lie vacant over the winter. The Soup Kitchen in Provincetown will resume preparing 125 hot lunches every day, eventually serving 15,000 meals by the time it wraps up for the year.
This summer, of course, will be different ― although nobody knows how exactly.
Like much of the country, Provincetown is in the throes of figuring out how to safely reopen during a pandemic. But while the shutdown has posed problems everywhere, the beach town and LGBTQ mecca is facing a pressure-cooker version of this dilemma. Workers here log massive overtime during the tourism season and live off savings, reduced wages or unemployment the rest of the year. Provincetown also has an aging population (median age, 57), with a significant number of HIV-positive, immunocompromised residents. The nearest intensive care bed is over an hour’s drive away.
And unlike the monthslong timelines being considered elsewhere for reopening, the runway here is a short one: June has arrived and with it, a roiling debate about what to do next.
Who’s In Charge?
Narrowly speaking, Provincetown is following orders. On May 18, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker (R) released a four-phase reopening plan for the state. At each phase, more business sectors can reopen but with modifications. Advancing to the next phase will depend on public health data. If a spike is observed in COVID-19 cases, the current phase could be paused or even rolled back. Phase one began on May 18. On June 8, the state advanced to phase two, and restaurants, lodging and retail businesses reopened across Massachusetts.
The problem is that the guidelines governing restaurants and lodging, which constitute the majority of Provincetown’s businesses, were not released until May 29, leaving only a little over a week for owners to entirely revamp their establishments in time to open their doors at the start of phase two.
“To effectively execute new systems, new layouts, new protocols, to hire staff, to train staff, it takes time,” said Anderson, who co-owns the Canteen with his husband, Loïc Rossignon.
Normally, Anderson told me, he would have had 42 people on staff by Memorial Day. On the day we spoke in late May, he had 12. To ramp up by July, he would need to hire dozens of additional workers within weeks — a process that normally takes him several months. And don’t forget, he reminded me, that anyone coming from out of town would need to quarantine for 14 days before they could begin working. That would land the Canteen, and any other local establishments attempting to hire on an accelerated timeline, fully open for business sometime in August — two-thirds of the way into the season.
In the gap left by the state’s guidance, Provincetown’s stakeholders ― business owners, year-round residents, second-home owners and investors, who own 70% of the housing stock ― asked the town to give direction. But the executive arm of the local government, which is led by a five-member elected Select Board, is not designed to respond to global pandemics. The Select Board members, often in concert with the town’s Board of Health, have been debating the many measures being considered — mandatory mask orders, the regulation of whale watch tours, the partial closure of Commercial Street to cars — during meetings broadcast over public conference calls that last several hours. Like the business owners, they are hamstrung by the delay in guidance from the state, at risk of enacting policies today that may be overridden by the governor tomorrow.
All of the proposed stopgaps will likely fail without the resolution of a larger question hanging over every conversation: Should Provincetown focus its energy on welcoming visitors safely in order to plug a $200 million hole? Or should it batten down the hatches until the storm has passed?
A recent survey of the Provincetown community, conducted by the town’s recovery coalition, found that a majority of respondents believed that stopping the coronavirus should be the local government’s priority. But in that same survey, a majority also felt that reopening this summer, including restaurants and inns, would be possible. Clearly, not everyone here agrees on how serious the COVID-19 threat is — or how to protect against it.
‘The Intimacy Of Provincetown Is Deadly This Season’
Myra Slotnick, a playwright who has lived in Provincetown for 18 years, stood in front of the town hall every weekend for a month with homemade signs. One sign read: “Protect our town. Shut it down.” Another had a blunter message: “Vacation is a week. Death is forever.”
“The numbers in Barnstable County today were 1,200,” Slotnick told me on the day we spoke, referring to the number of people who had tested positive for COVID-19, “and over 100 deaths.” (The numbers for the county ― which essentially consists of the Cape Cod peninsula ― have since risen to 1,458 and 123, respectively. In Provincetown, there have been 28 confirmed COVID-19 cases and one death.)
“This is with nobody here,” Slotnick continued. “So imagine: People spill into town. Then you add alcohol, then you add the party atmosphere, the irreverence, the feeling of ownership with some people when they come here. And then they infect two people, who infect four people, who infect 10 people.”
She paused, as if thinking of another way to say this.
“We’re sitting ducks. People don’t have to come here, but we have no place else to go.”
Slotnick and other residents point to Provincetown’s beloved social life ― the drag shows, dance floors and beach parties that have been part of the town’s appeal for decades ― as a prime risk factor. Commercial Street itself is a vibrant scene. Longtime summer resident Michael Cunningham, in his 2002 book “Land’s End,” compared riding a bike on it to “flying a spaceship through a field of sluggish but erratically moving asteroids.”
“Provincetown is intimate and that’s its charm,” Slotnick said. “But I really feel that the intimacy of Provincetown is deadly this season. … I don’t think you can social distance on Commercial Street. I don’t think you can safely do any of the things that people flock to Ptown for.”
Select Board member Lise King has also been one of the most outspoken advocates for prioritizing safety in Provincetown this summer. In late March, a Facebook post of hers warning of the risks of visiting was quoted in The New York Times. “TO ANYONE THINKING ABOUT COMING TO PTOWN,” the post began. “PLEASE make yourself aware of our circumstances and make an informed choice.”
King’s appearance in the Times garnered a rebuke (also on Facebook) from Select Board Chair David Abramson, who wrote that it had “created an atmosphere of fear, anxiety and animosity.” He described her actions as “unconscionable” and an “act of self-promotion.” (Abramson declined to be interviewed for this article.)
“If this is my political last stand in Provincetown, that’s OK,” King told me. “I have to be able to live with what happens here for the rest of my life. So my decision is a moral one.”
“Let’s be conservative and say 10 people die over the course of the summer,” she went on. “Which 10 people are you willing to bury in town? We all know each other. Which 10 people are you OK to sacrifice so that we can have a tourist economy?”
Right In The Coronavirus Bullseye
As King pointed out to The New York Times, Provincetown has a health care capacity that corresponds to its small, relatively rural setting. It’s served by Outer Cape Health, a nonprofit that operates three community health centers, none of which have overnight beds. The nearest hospital is more than an hour away in Hyannis, making Provincetown’s community health center the farthest from a hospital in the state of Massachusetts.
In a normal year, Outer Cape Health would significantly increase its staffing in preparation for the summer spike in visitors. But this March, citing losses of up to $1 million in monthly revenue due to COVID-19, it announced that 70 of its 200 staffers had been furloughed. Outer Cape Health laid off a smaller number and reduced hours for others in a “staff reorganization” that impacted half of its workforce. (It has since rehired roughly 20 of the furloughed staff, largely to do COVID-19 contact tracing.) The Provincetown center will remain open this summer, but at reduced capacity, offering telehealth services and in-person visits as needed.
Dr. Andrew Jorgensen, chief medical officer for Outer Cape Health, told me he was “cautiously optimistic about the summer.” He cited his organization’s access to an extensive medical transportation system, which allows the Provincetown center to quickly transfer patients to the hospital, as well as his organization’s robust testing capacity and new contact tracing program.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen in the summer,” Jorgensen said. “If Massachusetts, New York and the rest of New England are doing a really careful job in the reopening process, but then people come on vacation from places where maybe it wasn’t so careful, it could easily infect the population.”
But there are systems in place, he noted. “If somebody was here in town and was exhibiting symptoms, we’d be able to quickly test them and, if they were positive, deploy the contact tracing process in order to contain it as quickly as possible,” he said.
Adding to the town’s health care situation is its history as a refuge for people with AIDS during the early years of that epidemic. Provincetown’s AIDS Support Group, which lives on today as the AIDS Support Group of Cape Cod, was founded in 1983. As Masha Gessen wrote in The New Yorker in 2018, the town “had low rents in the off-season, many queer landlords who weren’t afraid to rent to the sick, an AIDS support group, a gay magazine full of treatment information (I was the editor), and a lesbian town nurse named Alice Foley. … She would drive sick men two and a half hours to one of the Boston hospitals when necessary.”
Today, roughly 10% of Provincetown residents are living with HIV — the highest per-capita rate in the state and among the highest in the country. With a population that also skews older — a third of its residents are over 65 — the community is in some ways particularly vulnerable.
“Our demographic is right in the bullseye of the virus,” Slotnick said.
Nadine Licostie, who co-owns the Seaglass Inn & Spa with her wife, Faith Licostie, said they would wait to reopen their hotel until a reliable plan for health care is in place.
“Someone is going to come into town who’s going to have the virus,” she said. “And they’re going to spread it. And then how do you start taking care of the people who get sick?”
She added: “Our number one responsibility is to make sure that Provincetown residents are safe and that our staff is safe. We’ve got 20 people on staff and we want to put them back to work, but we can’t do it until we know there’s some safety for them.”
Who Polices Wearing Masks?
Some stakeholders in Provincetown, however, are worried about the town’s ability to survive a different threat than a COVID-19 outbreak: an empty summer.
“I don’t think anybody in the business community wants to open up the floodgates and invite everybody from the world to come,” said Rick Murray, who owns the Crown & Anchor entertainment complex and the Mussel Beach Health Club. “But we do need to have some semblance of economic activity in order to survive. This is a slow-booming economic tsunami. It’s not just for these eight weeks — this is a two-to-three-year struggle that we’re all going to be in. And I don’t think everybody can see that right now.”
One of the major drivers of tourism in Provincetown is a series of theme weeks, in which visitors from around the world descend upon the town for events like Bear Week, Girl Splash, Family Week and Carnival. Most of the theme weeks for summer 2020 have been canceled.
“When you take out those big commerce weeks, it’s very different,” Murray said.
The bulk of tourism in Provincetown occurs in July and August, which means that many businesses have a little more than eight weeks to sell enough T-shirts, bowls of clam chowder, jigsaw puzzles and margaritas to pay their gas, insurance, tax, and rent or mortgage bills for the other 10 months of the year. Cities like New York or San Francisco can reopen throughout the fall and winter — but if Provincetown’s economy doesn’t turn profitable in the next two months, it may not have the opportunity again for another year.
The debate about how to balance tourism and safety this summer has crystallized in the discussion about face masks. Currently, Provincetown requires masks to be worn on the busiest section of Commercial Street from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Some residents have argued that the order should be extended to require masks at all times and throughout the whole town. Others point out that the 9-to-9 mandatory masking on Commercial Street already goes above and beyond the governor’s order, which only requires masks to be worn when social distancing is not possible. They argue that further expanding regulations is unnecessary and would project an image of Provincetown as an unsafe, inhospitable place, discouraging visits from the very tourists that the economy desperately needs.
“Wearing masks all the time is not realistic, or in my opinion, safe,” wrote Michela Murphy, whose family owns the restaurant Sal’s Place, in a letter to the Select Board. She emphasized that she was not “anti-mask” and added that she herself had made and distributed thousands of masks since the pandemic started. But, she wrote, “[h]uman beings are … not meant to wear masks affecting their ability to breathe for most of the hours that they are awake.” Like many business owners, Murphy called for the governor’s order to be clearly explained and advertised in town, but not expanded on.
Following on the heels of any discussion of mask policy is the question of how that policy would be enforced. Part of Provincetown’s history as an LGBTQ haven is its protection of free expression. The town is a place where people come to be themselves, and its promise to visitors has long been a respite from shame.
For a community of people whose existence was effectively outlawed in some parts of the country as late as 2003 — the year the Supreme Court ruled that anti-sodomy laws were unconstitutional — such an escape is no small thing. Many of the most mundane, and beautiful, sights from a summer day in Provincetown — two women walking with their hands in each other’s back pockets, a drag queen on rollerblades, a throng of men in Daisy Duke shorts who may have had a daiquiri too many with lunch — might draw a stare, a punch or even a summons in another part of the country. In Provincetown, though, “live and let live” practically emanates from the sidewalks ― a commitment, if not explicit then firmly entrenched, to freedom from societal expectations on how a person should dress, look or behave.
Recent town meetings have been peppered with requests for the police to aggressively enforce masks and social distancing, but such a move would be a radical departure from Provincetown’s culture. Not everyone believes it would be a popular or even a practical step.
“It’s complicated and I recognize that people are scared,” said Eric Sussman, Provincetown’s emergency management transportation coordinator. “But if the moment comes where bad behavior is exhibited — the kind of bad behavior that requires an enforcement officer — I hope that police officer is available, instead of walking down the street issuing a ticket to a non-mask-wearer.”
‘There’s No Safety Net’
Lost somewhere between the voices of those calling for caution in Provincetown and those advocating for a faster reopening are those who do not own the businesses but work in them — many of whom survive the winter in seasonal jobs in other parts of the country or on savings accrued during 60- to 80-hour weeks during the summer.
Kiki Jackson spends her winters working at a coffee shop in New Orleans and her summers at KoHi Coffee in Provincetown. She arrived back on Cape Cod in April but has not returned to work; her household includes an immunocompromised person, and her job as general manager at KoHi would put her in contact with a large volume of customers. A combination of unemployment benefits and savings will carry her through September, but that marks the end of the season in Provincetown. She doesn’t know what she’ll do next.
Provincetown residents gain and lose roughly 400 jobs every summer as part of the seasonal economy — a 25% fluctuation in the local employment rate. An overwhelming majority of these jobs are in the leisure and hospitality industry, which has been devastated by the pandemic. In April, the sector’s unemployment rate nationwide was almost 40%. And undocumented immigrants, who numbered an estimated 5,000 on the cape in 2016, may be in the direst straits of all. Without access to unemployment benefits, including the additional weekly $600 provided by the pandemic-driven CARES Act, their options for relief have been slim.
The Soup Kitchen in Provincetown usually provides an important bridge to help the community survive the off-season. But even though the organization extended its service this year through May 29 — a full five weeks longer than in a normal year — its doors are now closed until the fall.
One of the modifications that Anderson made to the Canteen’s operations when he was forced to shut down normal service was to turn the restaurant into an ad hoc grocery store that delivers. In addition to providing groceries to paying customers who don’t want to risk visiting the supermarket, he’s also doing two to 10 free grocery orders a day, funded by some $15,000 in donations that he’s collected so far through his website. He said the vast majority of people using the free grocery program were undocumented workers and elderly residents without an income.
“The [business] owners, for the most part, own property. It’ll be hard for everyone, but they have some equity,” said Nadine Licostie, the Seaglass Inn & Spa owner. “But for the workers, there’s no safety net.”
A Queer Haven
“If you’re lucky in your life,” Paul Lisicky writes in “Later,” his memoir about Provincetown at the height of the AIDS crisis, “a place, or two, will be offered to you. You love this place like a person you can’t stop making love to — you dream about this person when they’re right in front of you. You move through its streets and paths aroused and alert. You can’t get that mischievous smile off your face. You want to put your hands on it, that place, that whole place. You have a secret, and isn’t it lucky that everyone else on the street shares that secret with you?”
When I was a child, my family would drive 14 miles from Wellfleet to spend the day in Provincetown, where my siblings and I would load white paper bags with penny candy at Cabot’s and buy tie-dyed T-shirts at Marine Specialties, the Army-Navy shop on Commercial Street that sells a little bit of everything. Even then, years before I came out, there was something about this place that allowed my shoulders to loosen and my chest to expand, something in the drag queens on bicycles and the handsome women drinking cocktails in the front yards of their B&Bs that made me feel safe.
There are vacation destinations across America that will be transformed by COVID-19 and families who, after 20 consecutive visits to a beloved beach town, will stay home this year, their summer radically changed. But there is a particular heartache to the loss of queer space. It was not so long ago that men who were sick made their way to this hamlet from around the country, confident that it was a place that would take them in.
My uncle David was one of them. He first came to Provincetown as a recent college graduate in the late 1970s, years before he became HIV-positive. He eventually moved to San Francisco, some 3,000 miles away, but he still managed to come back to town every summer right up through 1992, the year before he died of AIDS. It was a place where he found something. And though I am sure that my something is very different, I return to Provincetown most summers, too.
I struggle to explain why my chest feels more capacious in Provincetown, even as an adult. Maybe it has something to do with the reality that queer space is still geographically rare — one recent study put the total number of gay bars in the country at under 1,000, including just 16 lesbian bars nationwide. Maybe it’s about the fact that even though queer people can now legally marry — and many of them have in Provincetown — a case now sits before the Supreme Court that would give employers carte blanche to fire us when we return from our honeymoons. Or maybe the tug I feel toward this town is something less statistical, more visceral: It’s how totally unremarkable it is to see two women kissing there, how I feel both visible and anonymous when I walk down the street.
Lynette Molnar, an event producer who founded Provincetown for Women, had a more straightforward explanation.
“I used to live in San Francisco and I was gay-bashed there twice,” she said. “But I can walk down Commercial Street anytime, day or night, hear a man clear his throat, and never even turn around. I have no fear here.”
“We may not be having any dance parties this summer,” she added. “But we get to see ourselves here and I think that will still be possible.”
A Resilient And Resourceful Town
“Provincetown is a tough little New England town with smart people in it,” the journalist and part-time resident Mark Harris told me.
Ryan Landry, a writer and performer who has been coming to Provincetown since 1979, echoed this sentiment. He won’t be able to produce any of his long-running shows this summer. But he has always been resourceful, he told me, noting past performances like wrestling in kitty litter and drag queen softball (you had to bring a purse instead of a mitt, he explained). He’s confident that he’ll figure something out, including possibly doing shows outside if it’s safe.
“I’m going to make sure that I have fun this summer and that a lot of people do,” Landry said. “There will be a lot of camaraderie and a lot of goodness. Hopefully, we’ll get back to loving the cape for the cape.”
The natural beauty of Cape Cod, which has drawn both tourists and artists to the peninsula for more than a century, came up repeatedly when I asked residents what they thought might define Provincetown’s summer this year.
“A part of what I find so special about Provincetown is the bike ride through the trails where I don’t see another human for a few minutes, and the rocks on the beach where if you turn a certain way, you just see water,” said Richard Moore, a second-home owner.
Moore said he hoped those who visited this summer would be able to enjoy a kind of tranquility that’s usually only found in the fall or spring. “Some of the most healing and insightful times that I’ve had in Provincetown have been off-season. To experience Provincetown in the summer in that way is, in a sense, a gift for people who are able.”
Just how many people will experience Provincetown this summer remains to be seen. June 8 has arrived, and with it, the reopening of dining, lodging and retail businesses, all of which have heavily modified their operations without any certainty about how many customers will be walking in the door.
At the Carpe Diem Guesthouse, owners Stephen Hooper and Paul Graves have designed new systems for room sanitization, contactless check-in and contactless towel service. Josh Patner will offer gloves to visitors at his retail store, Loveland, where he said shopping is normally a “tactile” experience. And over at the Canteen, Rob Anderson and his husband have erected a new wall inside their restaurant so that staff will be able to safely take orders from the updated menu.
That is, of course, if there are orders to take.
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