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After coronavirus spike, Nantucket makes restaurants that serve alcohol close by midnight

Infectious disease specialists have warned that summer tourism hubs such as the Vineyard and Nantucket pose risks amid the health crisis.
Infectious disease specialists have warned that summer tourism hubs such as the Vineyard and Nantucket pose risks amid the health crisis.Stan Grossfeld/ Globe Staff

With COVID-19 cases climbing on Nantucket amid the crush of summer tourists, restaurants that serve alcohol for on-site consumption will have to close at midnight starting Friday.

Town officials voted Thursday during a joint meeting of the Nantucket Board of Health and Board of Selectmen to mandate the midnight closing, with an 11:30 p.m. last call for alcohol. The order does not apply to restaurants that don’t serve alcohol.

However, the order also says the Board of Health will revisit the issue next week.

The closing time had been 1 a.m., with last call at 12;45 a.m., said Amy C. Baxter, licensing administrator for the Nantucket Police Department. 

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Roberto Santamaria, Nantucket’s health and human services director, said during the meeting — held remotely and broadcast online — that the island has recorded 41 positive cases since March, though only 14 of those cases had been recorded by the beginning of June.

“Proportionally, we’re still doing a lot better than the Cape and the rest of the state as a whole,” Santamaria said.

But many island visitors have been seen in recent weeks leaving restaurants inebriated after closing, often without masks or not observing social distancing.

“It’s mostly at night that we’re seeing the problems,” Santamaria said, adding that some restaurants had voluntarily started closing early.

Restaurant owners on the island who spoke to the Globe Thursday had mixed reactions to the early-closing order.

“We have no problem closing early if that’s what they think is best, but the town needs to exhaust other avenues of protecting staff and patrons,” said Genevieve Gauvin, owner of the Saltbox Tavern & Table. “The answer isn’t always to shut down restaurants.”

And, Gauvin said, staffing is an issue for restaurants.

“We all share staff, and everyone [is] short-staffed,” Gauvin said of the island’s restaurants. “If one person gets it, it’ll spread like wildfire. It’ll just run through all the restaurants.”

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Town officials, Gauvin said, “need to give us tools to keep everyone safe and not just crack down on us. We already went through three months of shutdown.”

Orla Murphy-LaScola, owner of the Proprietors Bar & Table, said the restaurant had already decided to cease drink service late at night, forgoing a major revenue source.

“It’s just not safe, and we can’t expect people who drink at night to go out on the streets and practice safe health guidelines,” Murphy-LaScola said.

She said local officials are trying their best to address the situation while helping struggling restaurants.

“They’re doing everything they can to keep us open and safe. But it depends on the overall community to keep staff and guests safe,” Murphy-LaScola said.

But Bob Luz, president and chief executive of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, said in a statement that closing restaurants earlier isn’t the answer.

There’s been “no scientific evidence to support the premise that COVID Is spread while eating at a restaurant, so limiting hours would not seem to be a logical step to curb the spread,” he said.

“House parties and large gatherings where individuals choose not to socially distance and not to wear masks is where there has been evidence of spread. Individuals have to make a more conscious decision to follow the established guidelines so we all get through this together.”

Martha’s Vineyard hasn’t been immune to the virus, either.

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Dukes County, which includes the Vineyard and the Elizabeth Islands, had recorded 65 positive cases as of Wednesday, according to the state Department of Public Health. At least 52 of those cases were from the Vineyard, according to local officials.

Infectious disease specialists have warned that summer tourism hubs such as the Vineyard and Nantucket, where the populations grow exponentially during the peak season, pose risks amid the health crisis.

“Yes, summer tourism is a big potential source of COVID spikes in areas like Nantucket and the Vineyard,” said Eleanor J. Murray, an assistant professor of epidemiology at Boston University, in an e-mail Thursday. “It’s risky for both visitors and residents for tourism to continue during this pandemic.”

But Stephen J. Visco, chairman of the Nantucket Board of Health, said at Thursday’s meeting that the early-closing restaurant order could help protect public safety.

“I believe that it’s going to help,” he said, “Any way we can help is fine with me.”

Correspondent Adam Sennott contributed to this report.



Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.