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After outbreak, Provincetown navigates another summer with COVID-19

Dressed as “Maxine the Vaccine,” Poppy Champlin encouraged people to get vaccinated for COVID-19 while promoting her comedy show on Commercial Street in Provincetown.
Dressed as “Maxine the Vaccine,” Poppy Champlin encouraged people to get vaccinated for COVID-19 while promoting her comedy show on Commercial Street in Provincetown.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

PROVINCETOWN — Pop-up COVID-19 testing sites. Mask advisories. Vaccination proof required for entry at some businesses.

The highly contagious COVID-19 Delta variant is an uninvited guest this summer in Provincetown and its menacing presence is threatening the busy season in this vacation town for the second year in a row and sickening residents despite a high local vaccination rate — just as tourism was beginning to roar back to life.

“It has been crazy,” said Elspeth Slayter, a Provincetown resident who said she has been careful throughout the pandemic and was among the hundreds of people who were waiting for a COVID-19 test Saturday morning at the Veterans Memorial Community Center. “It started early this year, and people have been just letting loose.”

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On Friday, the state Department of Public Health announced the Delta variant had been detected in a cluster of COVID-19 cases that originated in Provincetown, a community of 3 square miles and vacation destination where summer visitors expand the population from 3,000 to 60,000. This year, businesses hoped for an economic rebound after the pandemic kept tourists away last year.

From left, Elias Contreras, Ken Ng, and Charles McFerrin ate lunch at the Heaven Cafe in Provincetown on Saturday The restaurant asks customers to wear masks unless they are seated.
From left, Elias Contreras, Ken Ng, and Charles McFerrin ate lunch at the Heaven Cafe in Provincetown on Saturday The restaurant asks customers to wear masks unless they are seated.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

The town has been tracking a spike in cases for about two weeks, resulting in a cluster of 430 as of Friday, Town Manager Alex Morse wrote Saturday on Facebook. Thirty-six percent of the cases were among Provincetown residents, and 44 percent were found in Massachusetts residents who live elsewhere in the state, figures show.

Three people have been hospitalized, one of whom is from out of state, Morse wrote. One of the two Massachusetts residents, who had been vaccinated, has been released from the hospital, he wrote.

Samuel Scarpino, an epidemiologist and managing director of pathogen surveillance at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Pandemic Prevention Institute, said Saturday that what is happening in Provincetown mirrors a sharp rise in COVID-19 nationally and internationally, with much of it driven by the Delta variant.

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He said data indicate that vaccines still provide a high degree of protection against symptomatic Delta variant infection, even though there appears to be a higher rate of mild “breakthrough” infections of the variant.

While vaccinated individuals who end up infected with Delta are still at low risk of severe disease, they will be able to infect others, he said.

”Right now — where cases are surging, [like in] P-town — masking, testing, and other precautions are key steps we must all take,” Scarpino said.

Dave Ehlers, of South Amityville, N.Y., received a COVID-19 test at a popup clinic in Provincetown on Saturday. Ehlers was leaving soon and wanted to be confident he did not have the coronavirus.
Dave Ehlers, of South Amityville, N.Y., received a COVID-19 test at a popup clinic in Provincetown on Saturday. Ehlers was leaving soon and wanted to be confident he did not have the coronavirus.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Massachusetts has the second-highest vaccination rate in the country, behind Vermont, according to Becker’s Hospital Review. State figures put Provincetown’s vaccination rate at 116 percent of eligible residents, though some have questioned the accuracy of the numbers used to calculate that figure.

What isn’t in dispute is that COVID-19 has put Provincetown in an unwelcome spotlight at the worst time. The tourism season is in high swing, allowing would-be visitors plenty of time to rethink vacation plans and most pandemic restrictions in Massachusetts were lifted in May, meaning businesses who want stricter protocols can’t refer to broader government mandates if customers challenge their rules.

Since the recent outbreak began, some businesses closed for a day or two because of worker shortages, a mask advisory was put in place, and the town has resumed testing its wastewater for signs of coronavirus.

Ken Horgan, owner and general manager of the Pilgrim House, said he can’t risk giving COVID-19 the upper hand. Earlier last week, he said, his business began requiring patrons to offer proof of vaccination before accessing the property, which includes guest rooms, dining space, and a performance venue.

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Brent Thomas, dressed as historic figure Anne Hutchinson, led a tour through  Provincetown on Saturday. Thomas said they limit their tour to 10 people and asks that they practice pandemic protocol. This group confirmed they had all been vaccinated.
Brent Thomas, dressed as historic figure Anne Hutchinson, led a tour through Provincetown on Saturday. Thomas said they limit their tour to 10 people and asks that they practice pandemic protocol. This group confirmed they had all been vaccinated.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Pilgrim House also eliminated bar seating, reduced capacity in its showroom, added cleaning protocols, and required everyone on the grounds to wear masks in public spaces, he said.

“I think the general public is hearing us. You may choose not to get vaccinated, but if you don’t, please don’t come to Provincetown. You are not welcome at our businesses,” Horgan said Saturday.

Four vaccinated Pilgrim House workers tested positive for COVID-19 in the past 10 days and only one has recovered and returned to work, he said. Two workers were asymptomatic, Horgan said, and learned they were infected only after two other workers got sick and tested positive — prompting Pilgrim House to require tests for all staff.

The new policy prompted at least one woman to get vaccinated, Horgan said. She made an appointment to get the vaccine after learning she couldn’t see a performance of “Miss Richfield 1981″ without the shot.

“I have to take care of my team and I have to take care of the guests that I am lucky enough to have come,” Horgan said.

Radu Luca, executive director of the Provincetown Chamber of Commerce, said he feels for the town’s businesses, who “are doing everything right.”

“It’s hard because they are taking a hit right now. We want to keep our community and residents safe. We are fighting a lot of battles on different fronts,” said Luca, who encouraged visitors to get vaccinated.

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The flow of people on Commercial Street, Provincetown’s main thoroughfare, is one measure of the outbreak’s toll.

Despite the sunny weather Saturday, the scene was quieter than in a typical year after huge crowds gathered earlier this month for July 4 and for “Bear Week,” a popular celebration, said Gary Belis, a New York City resident who summers in Provincetown.

Jeff Lavine, left, and his husband Skip Sherald of Doylestown, Penn., shared a laugh on Commercial Street in Provincetown. “It’s not just Provincetown, it’s everywhere,” Lavine said about COVID-19.
Jeff Lavine, left, and his husband Skip Sherald of Doylestown, Penn., shared a laugh on Commercial Street in Provincetown. “It’s not just Provincetown, it’s everywhere,” Lavine said about COVID-19.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Now that COVID-19 cases are rising, Belis said some local residents are criticizing tourists “who don’t follow the rules” for bringing the virus to town. But, as Belis points out, the guidance given by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention didn’t prohibit vaccinated people from dancing without a mask in a crowded nightclub.

“Nobody’s been reckless,” Belis said. “As human beings, we tend to engage in the blame game.”

Following guidelines to stay healthy is not new to older members of the gay community, Belis said.

“Everybody here remembers AIDS,” he said. “When you say the word ‘virus,’ people pay attention.”

At The Lobster Pot, co-owner Shawn McNulty said business was consistent this summer until the COVID-19 cluster emerged.

“We’re still doing good, but we’ve seen a small drop in business,” he said.

The establishment closed for two days last week to “regroup,” as McNulty put it, and have each of its staff members tested. All of them got negative results, he said.

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Inside the restaurant, plastic screens divided tables, and all the windows were open to let air circulate. While customers were free to walk in without a mask, and most chose to do that, staff members had to keep them on.

“There’s so much uncertainty with this variant,” McNulty said, “and we’re trying to be comfortable with uncertainty.”

Family Week, an event for the LBGTQ community that began Saturday, moved its events outdoors and asked adults to sign waivers, according to its website.

Jen Keene, 39, of Nashua, who was visiting Provincetown with one of her two daughters, said she had planned to stick to outdoor events during her stay, maybe including some Family Week events. On the whale watch trip they took Saturday, Keene said, she and her daughter were the only guests wearing masks.

Keene, who is vaccinated, said she and her wife, who is expected to join her Sunday with their other daughter, wear masks because their children aren’t old enough to get vaccinated under current rules.

“It bothers me a little,” she said of others not masking, “because a mask isn’t just about protecting yourself, it’s for others.”

John Hilliard of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


Laura Crimaldi can be reached at laura.crimaldi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @lauracrimaldi. Jack Lyons can be reached at jack.lyons@globe.com.