Provincetown isn’t a place known for social distancing.
People flock there from all over the country and the world to be a part of a summer-long party. It’s one of the premiere LGBTQ tourist destinations in the United States, and it swells with music, parades, sweaty clubs, packed restaurants, and a central thoroughfare that can get so clogged with pedestrians, cyclists, and runners that it’s difficult to stay six inches apart from others, let alone six feet.
That perfect holiday atmosphere, set along the pristine beaches of the Cape Cod National Seashore, has helped the town of 3,000 pull in more than $200 million in tourism revenue annually. But what makes Provincetown so successful is also what makes it vulnerable to the coronavirus. That threat holds a special danger because the average age of residents is close to 60 and many are immuno-compromised.
Locals understand the risks, but tempers are flaring over how best to reopen the town, or if it should open to tourists at all. The most popular theme weeks and events (Women’s Week, Family Week, Bear Week, the Provincetown Film Festival) have all been scrapped in an effort to curtail crowds, which balloon to 50,000 during the height of the season. Just this week, the town’s biggest event, Carnival, was canceled by the Select Board, to the relief of many and the secret chagrin of others.
But the rest of the plan for how the summer will play out remains a question mark as the town waits for reopening guidelines from Governor Charlie Baker, in addition to suggestions from a local task force made up of Provincetown business owners, town officials, and medical advisors. There have been 27 reported cases of COVID-19 in Provincetown, and one COVID-related death.
“The balance is to figure out how you are going to be busy enough to stay economically viable but slow enough to maintain safety precautions,” said Rob Anderson, who owns the Canteen restaurant with his partner, Loic Rossignon. “And nobody knows what that balance is. If we, as a town, don’t decide and strictly enforce what it is we want to see, we could be left with a real health emergency.”
Anderson has been offering his take on how the town should reopen in Facebook posts. He and other business owners are growing anxious as Memorial Day approaches and the town has yet to issue health and safety guidelines.
“When the governor eases restrictions, it means you’ll have a lot of people from Boston saying, ‘Let’s take a drive to Provincetown,’ ” said Patrick Patrick, owner of Marine Specialties, a military surplus store and head of the town’s Chamber of Commerce.
Anderson has already seen this happen. On a recent warm Saturday, a crowd of day trippers congregated outside the Canteen’s pick-up window, some not practicing social distancing or wearing masks. He said several customers became belligerent when they were asked to follow safety protocols.
There is fear that some businesses will rush to open without a fully developed plan in place, hoping to make the most of Provincetown’s short summer season. Given the risks, longtime resident Myra Slotnick has been vocal in her belief that Provincetown should be closed to tourists this summer.
“It is my position that minimizing the number of people who come here will minimize the transmission of the virus,” Slotnick said in an e-mail. “I believe that only residents of Provincetown should be allowed to be here this season. Second-home owners, who are residents, make up 70 percent of the town. That is already a lot of people coming from all over the country. Key West has closed its doors to all but the locals, and so should we.”
Weighing heavily on Slotnick and many others is the memory of the AIDS epidemic, which took a heavy toll on Provincetown. Per capita, Provincetown has the highest rate of HIV infection rate in the state. The arrival of COVID-19 could prove particularly deadly to those with HIV and AIDS who are not on an antiretroviral treatment.
Some are hoping for an ultimate throwback summer. Without the parties and heavy drinking that have dominated in recent decades, this summer could emerge as a reset and offer a serene, sentimental quality that hasn’t existed in Provincetown in years.
“I’ve been coming here since the late 1970s,” said Anthony Fuccillo, director of tourism for Provincetown. “Hopefully this summer is going to be what it was like 25 years ago. People are going to come here to heal.”
In addition to disagreements among year-round residents, those who own second homes say they are also feeling tension. Some said they faced hostility from locals when they left their city homes in March to escape to their Provincetown vacation homes. There was talk of slashed tires and fights, although most of the talk appears to be unsubstantiated, blustery claims on the town’s contentious community Facebook page.
“I came here in March and was distressed by the us-versus-them, anti-second-home owner sentiment in some segments of the community,” said one man who asked that his name not be used. “I initially got mad, but then decided a better response would be to prove myself a part of the community, so now I do grocery [runs] and run errands for the elderly.”
The us-versus-them talk became so prevalent that Provincetown Select Board chairman David Abramson issued a statement that the town was welcoming of second-home owners. But Abramson added that those who have underlying health issues may be safer if they stay home.
“We are also a rural, coastal town that has a community health facility that works well for a small community, but will quickly reach capacity and get overstressed if the virus is not contained,” Abramson said in his statement. “We all remember the AIDS crisis, and let’s remember we were known as a town that helped and cared for others. Don’t let fear divide us.”
But the central issue remains having a plan in place for reopening to tourists, one which allows for some consensus between businesses and residents. That may be easier said than done in a small town filled with larger-than-life personalities and clashing opinions. Actor and playwright Ryan Landry often refers to it as “Problemstown.” A look at the bickering on the town’s community Facebook page shows that Landry is only half-joking.
Last month, the town manager created the Provincetown Recovery Coalition to formulate a plan for reopening, with a broad range of interests represented on the board. Patrick, an eighth-generation Provincetown native who is a member of the coalition, said there has been pressure from businesses to offer a plan quickly, particularly with Memorial Day weekend approaching. But without guidelines from the state it’s been a challenge.
“To some people it looks like the town’s not doing anything,” he said. “But, in fact, everyone is working overtime and planning for a number of eventualities. But you can’t put out 10 different plans for 10 different eventualities and not expect people to get upset or confused.”
About 80 percent of Provincetown businesses that responded to a survey from the Recovery Coalition said they plan to open this summer. The same percentage said they have a plan in place to communicate changes to customers.
Meanwhile, tourism is seemingly in a holding pattern. Provincetown is a place where people come year-after-year. Many book their accommodations long in advance to ensure they have a room during busy theme weeks. At least one hotel owner said many of his regulars have yet to cancel, but they are keeping close tabs on what’s happening in town.
“A lot of people really love Provincetown, with or without Carnival and other big summer parties,” said David Bowd, founder of the Salt House Inn. “I think everyone understands that it will be a little less frantic summer here, but we’re not seeing a huge shift in anything right now. Everyone is waiting to see what happens, and keeping their fingers crossed for the best.”