Mary Ann Paquette’s family has been going to the Cape every summer for more than 25 years. The last few seasons, the fear of sharks has kept them out of the water. But this year, the coronavirus pandemic could keep them at home.
Paquette, 80, of Paxton, is hopeful that she and her four children, 14 grandchildren, three great-grandchildren, and extended family will be able to spend a week in early August at the pristine four-bedroom house they’ve rented in East Orleans since 1997. But the virus has her concerned.
"We plan on going," Paquette said. "Unless it's not safe."
As summer vacation misgivings mount, the Cape and Islands are shrouded in uncertainty. The tourism industry has survived hurricanes and shark attacks and countless rainy spells, but the global coronavirus pandemic poses a more all-encompassing threat. Will vacationers feel comfortable staying in places previously occupied by other people? How many workers will businesses need, and when? What will it take to reassure people they won’t get sick?
And how do you maintain a 6-foot separation on a crowded patch of sand or at an ice cream stand?
Since the COVID-19 outbreak began, bookings for summer rentals are less than a third of what they would normally be this time of year, according to the home rental site WeNeedaVacation.com. Many seasonal restaurants and shops that typically start opening in late April are still locked up tight, and summer hiring is in limbo.
Still, compared to many tourist destinations, the Cape is in a relative sweet spot. A recent TripAdvisor survey found that 40 percent of travelers are more likely to go on a beach vacation than they were before the pandemic, and 44 percent are more likely to take a road trip. Cape Cod is already a huge driving destination, with 96 percent of visitors coming in their own cars, according to the local chamber of commerce.
"The Cape and Islands have 1,000 miles of coastline, so I think we can find a spot for everybody," said Wendy Northcross, chief executive of the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce. One thing is for certain, she said: "It will not be like any summer you've seen."
When some businesses are allowed to open, perhaps as early as May 18, a task force of business owners is envisioning sanitizing stations and cleaning crews everywhere. In restaurants, buffets may be closed, tables farther apart, and more outdoor dining allowed, with wait staff wearing face masks.
On Nantucket, officials are talking about having distinct seating times to allow restaurants to sanitize tables and restrooms between diners, said Tom Fusaro, owner of Fusaro’s Homemade Italian Restaurant.
Fusaro’s, which is normally open year-round, is gearing up to open for takeout next week. And that might be as good as it gets. Even if vacationers do come to the island, Fusaro said, they might not be comfortable going out to dinner.
"There's nothing but questions," he said. "It's kind of just hanging on for dear life and hoping for the best."
But even if crowds do return, it would pose a challenge for the many businesses on the Cape and Islands that count on foreign workers. The processing of J-1 and H-2B visas is on hold, and it’s unclear when those workers could get flights to the US. The plethora of out-of-work locals could potentially make up the difference, but with the $600-a-week bump in benefits they’re getting through the end of July, they might make more money on unemployment than they would slinging lobster rolls.
Americans didn’t want to work in the kitchen at JT’s Seafood Restaurant before, said Bud Noyes, owner of the “fish and chip paper-plate joint” in Brewster, and he can’t imagine they’d be any more likely to now.
"Somebody that's a waitress at a high-end place isn't going to work here," he said. "They're going to make less money here" than they would collecting unemployment.
Home rentals may also be handled differently. Instead of turning over homes every Saturday, with cleaning done in a matter of hours between guests, stays may be reduced from seven to six days a week to provide an extra day for cleaning, or rentals could be limited to every other week. Even if properties continue being turned over on the same day, the cleaning process will probably take more time.
At the Furies cleaning and linen rental service in Wellfleet, new procedures include requiring cleaners to sign a document before each shift stating they are healthy. The company will also start sanitizing equipment and cars, requiring workers to wear masks and gloves, and disinfecting touch points such as light switches and remote controls. Owner Steve Lam is raising workers’ wages to reflect these additional responsibilities, from $15 to $18 an hour to start, and will increase rates accordingly.
The business, he admits, is in “uncharted waters." “You’re staring at your employees, you’re staring at your bank book.”
The Nantucket Hotel & Resort, which has remained open during the pandemic, is still planning to pick up guests at the ferry, but expects some might opt to put their luggage in the van and walk to the hotel instead, said owner Mark Snider. The hotel is also offering grocery service for guests with kitchenettes; housekeeping will be reduced to every other day — unless guests prefer it more or less often — and dining room tables and treadmills in the gym will be moved 6 feet apart.
Similar precautions will be taken at Snider’s Winnetu Oceanside Resort on Martha’s Vineyard. And both properties will offer a 25 percent discount to guests staying 14 nights or more.
“In a way, it’s a throwback ... to come to a place that’s very simple and easy and safe and secure, and we have to emphasize that,” he said.
Many property owners who rent out their homes through WeNeedaVacation.com aren’t reducing rates, at least not yet. Among the 3,300 homes on the site, prices have only dropped 0.5 percent on average, according to owners Joan and Jeff Talmadge. A number of vacationers have canceled or postponed trips planned in May and June, the Talmadges said, but they’ve started to see a slight rise in bookings for later in the summer — though since the outbreak, reservations are down more than 70 percent compared to last year at this time.
The hope is that once the state starts reopening, the numbers will rise, Joan Talmadge said. With no school in session, June could be busier than usual, she said. Canceled summer camps could also drive up interest.
"There is little doubt that there will be a great pent-up demand," Talmadge said in an e-mail.
Still, fears of getting sick may override the urge to go on vacation.
Karen McKenna and her husband, of Westford, wanted to keep the house in Dennis that they rented in late June with their extended family. But their children, worried about exposing their 60-something parents, both of them cancer survivors, to the virus, decided it was too risky. So McKenna reluctantly canceled the reservation. It’s disappointing, she said, but “not a big deal considering what some people are going through.”
Sara Maffeo has been on the other side of these cancellations. Maffeo usually has the whole summer booked by now at her three-bedroom house in Dennisport. This year, however, she still has all of July and two weeks in August open.
“It’s a huge waiting game," said Maffeo. “Hopefully when it ends people will say, ‘I want to have a vacation and the Cape might be a good answer. It’s close. The gas prices are low, and you don’t have to get on a plane.' ”
Beth Teitell of the Globe staff contributed to this report.