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On Cape Cod, business owners are getting ready for a season of record crowds and worker shortages

Erin Gallagher of Orleans, a server at the Brewster Fish House, prepared drinks and handled the phone during the restaurant’s lunch hour last Friday.
Erin Gallagher of Orleans, a server at the Brewster Fish House, prepared drinks and handled the phone during the restaurant’s lunch hour last Friday.Julia Cumes/For The Boston Globe

All signs are pointing to a record summer on the Cape and Islands, a welcome burst of business after a year of pandemic dreariness. There’s just one problem: Hotels and restaurants are having trouble finding enough employees to handle the surge.

Hiring seasonal workers to make beds and wash dishes has long been a challenge, even in the best of times. But with the arrival of a crucial foreign workforce potentially delayed due to just-lifted visa restrictions, and locals content to keep collecting enhanced unemployment checks as COVID keeps spreading — including a current spike in positive cases on the Cape — business owners are struggling more than usual to get their staffs in place. And the prospect of being overwhelmed by a stampede of vacation-starved tourists is putting some of them on edge.

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“We believe that everybody who was in COVID jail for the last year — and rightfully so — is going to be released from house arrest and they’re going to be wild,” said Sarah Robin, owner of the Flying Fish restaurant in Wellfleet. “Frankly, we’re nervous.”

Bookings are way up at hotels and rental properties from spring through fall. As of late March, reservations for Cape and Islands properties were up more than 73 percent this year over each of the three years prior to the pandemic, according to the listing site WeNeedAVacation.com. With more people getting vaccinated but still avoiding metropolitan areas and international travel, drivable beach vacations are in a sweet spot. And between the lack of spending on leisure activities in the past year and a round of freshly deposited stimulus checks, some people have money to burn.

“There appears to be unprecedented demand,” said Wendy Northcross, chief executive of the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce. “Pretty much everyone has a ‘help wanted’ sign out.”

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About a quarter of the 20,000-plus seasonal workforce on the Cape is made up of foreign workers here on H-2B or J-1 visas, which were suspended last spring after the pandemic hit. The ban expired last week, which could create a logjam at US consulates, many of which are still operating at reduced capacity, as workers who haven’t been able to apply for visas try to start scheduling interviews, said Nate Riccardi, an immigration lawyer in Framingham.

For those able to secure a visa, travel restrictions remain in place for a number of countries. People who don’t qualify for an exception can’t travel directly to the United States from several countries where COVID-19 variants have emerged, including South Africa, for instance, where a significant number of Cape H-2B workers come from. They would instead have to travel to another country without travel restrictions and quarantine for 14 days before entering the United States. All foreign travelers are required to show proof of a recent negative COVID test or recovery before boarding a flight to the United States, even if they’ve been vaccinated.

“Coming to the US is still difficult right now for many foreign workers,” Riccardi said. “It leaves many US employers in a tough spot.”

Mac Hay, owner of Mac’s Seafood, which operates restaurants and fish markets across the Cape and relies heavily on foreign workers, describes the upcoming season in ominous tones. “We’re looking down the barrel of what’s going to be the strongest summer that I’ve ever seen,” he said.

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Despite elevated unemployment rates, Hay is struggling to attract workers — an ongoing issue that he and other employers blame on the lack of affordable places to live. “We’re not going to resolve our labor issue either on a seasonal nature or year-round nature until we somehow address the housing crisis,” he said.

Robin, of the Flying Fish, usually hires seven or eight foreign students who come on J-1 visas, but she isn’t certain if or when they’ll make it this year. Without them, the “terrible” task of finding enough workers each year would be even worse. Add in the responsibility of operating a restaurant during a pandemic, with all the masking and sanitizing and social distancing requirements, and it’s more than a little daunting.

“It’s indescribable how challenging it is to accomplish the goals of making sure everybody’s safe, making sure everybody has a nice experience,” said Robin, who is building another deck to accommodate more outdoor dining. “You’ve got all these added concerns that you never needed to focus on before.”

Business owners said they are also facing higher costs on basic items like bed sheets and soap since the pandemic started, in addition to experiencing longer wait times to get supplies due to disruptions in the global supply chain. Some are even making permanent modifications. At the Lobster Trap in Bourne, owner Dave Delancey closed in March to do long-planned renovations and ended up spending more money to install stainless steel counters, which are easier to sanitize, and touchless faucets and soap in the bathrooms. When he reopened, so many people showed up there was a waitlist for dinner. “There’s so much pent-up energy,” he said.

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Finding employees isn’t as much of an issue on the Upper Cape — “only a short skip over the bridge” — but all the restrictions are. Ten tables have been removed from the dining room and people still can’t wait at the bar. “Who can keep up anymore?” Delancey said. “What are we on, step 6 million right now?”

At Brewster Fish House, owner Vernon Smith is only counting on being open five days a week instead of the usual seven, unless he can get more workers. “If we can get the staff, we’ll go to six days,” he said. “I don’t think we’ll ever make it to seven days.”

Smith is also concerned about customers “feeling bulletproof” as vaccinations rise, and refusing to wear masks. “I’m afraid that a lot of visitors will feel that it’s behind us and there’s no need to do this anymore,” he said.

One thing businesses may not need to worry about is vacationers’ willingness to spend money. At the Sandbars Inn, a modest beachfront property in North Truro, general manager Joe Ebner can see it in the increase in weeklong stays and the lack of hesitation to shell out $300 a night at the height of summer. July is 80 percent sold out already, and August is close to 60 percent. “Everybody now is cashing in their stimuluses,” he said.

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Amanda Benoit, general manager at the Woods Hole Inn, is also seeing guests staying longer and spending more money. Reservations are ahead of where the property was in 2019 at this time, although hiring isn’t going as smoothly.

“We’re having trouble filling all positions,” she said, “mostly, we feel, due to the impact of the additional money folks are getting for unemployment.”

So Benoit and her skeleton crew are working around the clock to gear up for what is shaping up to be a very busy summer.

“It’s exciting,” she said, “and at the same time, I don’t know if I’m quite ready for folks to be traveling a lot.”


Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.