Attracting customers wasn’t a problem this summer at Arnold’s Lobster & Clam Bar in Eastham. Despite the pandemic — and the plexiglass barriers dividing the hallways and the signs reminding people to stay 6 feet apart — the line of masked customers was out the door on weekends.
But due to the temporary ban on worker visas, intended to keep jobs open for laid-off Americans, the foreign students who usually wash dishes and bus tables weren’t allowed in the country. And so, for the first time in 43 years, owner Nate Nickerson closed his restaurant on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
Still, demand was higher than expected for Nickerson and many other tourism businesses across the Cape and Islands. People within driving distance were desperate to go on vacation without getting on a plane, beach days were plentiful, and takeout and outdoor dining thrived. That spelled a better-than-anticipated season for business owners — and a huge demand for rentals on the Cape.
“I prayed that we could at least pay our bills through the winter, and I think I’m going to be able to do that,” Nickerson said.
But he’s not resting easy: “I don’t sleep well these days. ... It’s an awesome responsibility to keep everybody safe.”
“Not as bad as it could have been” seems to be the overwhelming sentiment among Cape and Islands business owners. Most pandemic-related shutdowns were lifted before the peak tourist season began, and with a late Labor Day, many people able to work wherever there’s Wi-Fi, and schools delaying start dates or holding classes online, the fall is shaping up to be busier than normal.
The challenges, of course, have been unprecedented. Restaurants struggled to get enough workers due to the visa clampdown, and some local employees were too nervous to come back, driving owners to reduce hours. Extra cleaning procedures and spacing requirements drove up costs, and a cascade of changing regulations required constant vigilance. Between wearing masks and monitoring customer numbers, employees were exhausted.
As one Wellfleet restaurant owner put it: “It was 10 times the work for half the money.”
An ongoing Cape Cod Commission survey that opened in early August found that, of 370 businesses that have responded so far, 52 percent said their revenues had dropped by more than half this year.
And yet, for many, that was better than expected.
Hotel occupancy was down nearly 23 percent from mid-July to mid-August compared to last year, but only off 13 percent on weekends, said Wendy Northcross, chief executive of the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce. And bookings for the first two weeks of September are stronger than usual.
“It was a roller coaster for sure,” Northcross said, noting that hoteliers thought occupancy would be much lower considering the lack of weddings and reunions and conferences. “We still worry that they made enough to be able to stick around until next year.”
Housing rentals, on the other hand, were off the charts. In July and August, 96 percent of the 3,700 Cape and Islands properties on weneedavacation.com were booked, up from 84 percent last year. The number of daily inquiries about rentals tripled for June through August, higher than at any point in the company’s 23-year history, including a huge jump in requests for stays of more than two weeks. Bookings for fall and next year are setting records, too.
After more than 200 cancellations in the spring, the 140 Cape properties managed by New England Vacation Rentals have been booked solid since the Fourth of July and are almost sold out for September. “As soon as those gates opened, the pace of bookings was crazy,” said president Joanne Logie.
Guests are looking for outdoor couches and fire pits and pools — anything to stay in the backyard — and are doing more cooking and ordering in. “The trash is insane,” she said.
A flood of cancellations also turned into a rush of bookings at the Nantucket Hotel & Resort and the Winnetu Oceanside Resort on Martha’s Vineyard. Staffing has been a challenge, as has informing out-of-state guests they have to quarantine for 14 days or test negative, said owner Mark Snider. But his resorts have been about as busy as they normally are, including an increase in young adults vacationing with their parents.
“People desperately want to get out,” Snider said. “And they don’t have that many places to go.”
Sales have increased over the course of the summer at the C’est la Vie gift shop in Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard, but owner Roger Schilling is doing about half the business he normally does. “August is our Christmas, usually,” he said. “No Christmas this year, that’s for sure.”
At the Chatham Clothing Bar, owner Sandy Wycoff said she feels lucky sales are down only about 30 percent. Wearing masks all day is tough, she said: Your glasses steam up, you sweat, and you have to talk loudly to be heard through both the cloth and the plexiglass at the register. “Let me tell you, it’s not fun and it’s not pretty,” she said.
Wycoff also keeps someone stationed at the door to make sure there are no more than 14 people in the store at a time, and to remind customers to leave their drinks, and their dogs, outside.
“You’re always, always on,” she said.
At Skull Island in South Yarmouth, a 59-year-old institution offering mini golf, batting cages, and go-karts, owner Lou Nickinello installed porta-potties and introduced window service for giving out golf balls and go-kart tickets so customers can stay outside. Business is off about 20 percent, and that’s fine by Nickinello, 79, who said he has already managed to pay back the $100,000 he borrowed from the bank to keep the lights on. “I’m ecstatic that we did that well,” he said.
Bud Noyes at JT’s Seafood Restaurant in Brewster is also thrilled with how the summer turned out. JT’s was already geared toward takeout and outdoor dining, so despite keeping the dining room closed, business is up double digits, he said. “It couldn’t have been better for me,” he said.
Definitely not as bad as expected.
The Lobster Claw Restaurant in Orleans also did a “massive” takeout business and the dining room was busy, but with no outdoor space and nearly half the tables removed — despite setting some up in the gift shop — business is down substantially. The owners decided to sell the restaurant, but it’s about retirement, not COVID-19, said Don Berig, 81, who owns the spot with his wife and still makes the orders, cuts the fish, greets guests, and does the bookkeeping.
In large part, judging by his liquor sales, it was the older customers who stayed away this summer, Berig said. Last season, he went through 18 bottles of Dewar’s, the drink of choice for many older customers, whereas this year he’s finished only one. But setting up tables outside was never an option: “I never wanted to eat in someone’s parking lot,” Berig said, “and I didn’t want anyone eating in ours.”
Alcohol sales are also off at the Lobster Trap in Bourne, largely because people can’t have a beer at the bar or order a cocktail while they wait for a table, said owner Dave Delancey. “Thanks, Charlie,” he said, referring to Governor Baker’s orders. “Twist the knife a little deeper, buddy.”
By the end of the year, Delancey expects revenues will be down less than 20 percent, which isn’t terrible considering the year-round restaurant was closed for more than a month. Still, when it gets colder and he has to close the patio and bring in the tables from the parking lot, Delancey isn’t sure what will happen: “I’m just a little nervous for the winter.”