The boardwalk in Ocean City on May 10, 2020. (Eric Thayer/Getty Images)

For summer towns, Memorial Day brings anxiety and optimism

Samantha Fields May 21, 2020
The boardwalk in Ocean City on May 10, 2020. (Eric Thayer/Getty Images)

Any other year in Door County, Wisconsin, the Scandinavian Lodge would be booked solid for Memorial Day weekend. This year, just five of its 52 rooms are reserved. 

On Cape Cod, in Massachusetts, hotels and short-term rentals are still banned until at least June 8, and possibly longer.

In Ocean City, Maryland, the boardwalk and beach have reopened, but the rides and arcades are closed, and restaurants are still limited to curbside pickup.

For these three communities, and many more around the country, summer is everything. It’s when hotels, shops and restaurants open, and when many residents make most or all of their money for the year.

“It is literally the most important thing,” said Austin Purnell, an assistant manager at Resort Rentals in Ocean City, Maryland. “Some people have 12 months a year to make their money, we have 90 days. Nobody really wants to come to the beach in February. So, we have 90 days to make it happen. And if it doesn’t, that’s gonna be a pretty bleak picture for a lot of people.”

But with COVID-19 still very much a threat, and most states in the tentative early stages of reopening, people who live and work in communities that rely heavily on summer tourism don’t know what to expect as the season kicks off this year.

“Everyone’s scared to death, to be honest,” said Shawn Harman, who owns Fish Tales restaurant and Bahia Marina in Ocean City. “A lot of my friends are people that I grew up with that went and started their own restaurant or other business, from construction to power washing or whatever, and they’re all very, very anxious.”

For people whose livelihoods revolve entirely around summer tourism, there is anxiety about whether they’ll be able to re-open in time to take advantage of the season, anxiety about whether tourists will actually come, and anxiety about whether, if tourists do come, they’ll bring COVID-19 with them. For the most part, economic anxiety seems to be higher than anxiety about the virus.

“There are people that are concerned about having outsiders come here and give us the virus,” Harman said. “But … if we don’t get visitors here, it trickles down to everybody. If we don’t have visitors, the hotels don’t make money, the restaurants don’t make money, the contractors who service the restaurants and motels don’t make money, the service industry people, the power washers, the boat mechanics, fuel sales, the convenience stores, the liquor stores, the candy stores, the boardwalk stores, they need to have people here.”

Mixed in with the anxiety is a fair amount of optimism that tourism will pick up some later in the summer as states continue to slowly lift restrictions on hotels, restaurants and non-essential businesses. Particularly now that all 50 states are starting to move toward reopening, some more quickly than others.

Some people have 12 months a year to make their money, we have 90 days.

-Austin Purnell, assistant manager at Resort Rentals in Ocean City, Maryland

“I’m thinking that, hopefully as the season goes on, more people will come down this way,” said Todd Barry, who owns Moby Dick’s Restaurant in Wellfleet on Cape Cod. “What will save the season will be July, August, September and October. Especially September and October, which people have been finding out is probably the best time of year to come out here and vacation.”

Tourists seem hopeful about that possibility, too. In Door County and Ocean City, where hotels are now allowed to reopen, a lot of people have been making reservations for later in the summer or fall. 

“There is a lot of demand right now,” Purnell said. “People calling and booking for, in my experience, July, August and September. We’re getting some June demand, a little bit, but I think a lot of people are saying, ‘hey, if we were thinking June this year, let’s go July.”

There have also been a lot of cancellations, and people pushing their reservations off to next year.

“All that we have is three or four full weekends,” said Robin Anschutz, who manages the Scandinavian Lodge in Sister Bay. “Other than that, it’s pretty quiet during the week. So I don’t know. It’s a loss. It will be a loss this summer I think.”

Hotels, inns and short-term rentals may be particularly hard hit, with state and local officials still largely discouraging people from getting on planes, traveling long distances or getting together with family and friends. But other local businesses and restaurants are holding out hope that summer residents and visitors who live within driving distance will still come.

“I think where we can count on some of our season coming from is from seasonal residents who have been coming here,” said Julian Cyr, a Massachusetts state senator who represents Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. 

With COVID-19 still very much a threat, communities that rely heavily on summer tourism don’t know what to expect as the season kicks off. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

People who live within driving distance of beach communities are also already starting to show up in larger numbers, on the boardwalk in Ocean County, and in downtown Sister Bay, where Lars Johnson has his restaurant, Al Johnson’s.

“I think there’ll be mainly what we call day trippers from two, three to four hours away,” Johnson said. “People have been at home for almost two months now. And the safer-at-home order was just recently lifted. So we have seen every weekend build a little bit in terms of day trippers, a lot of traffic, milling around.”

He’s optimistic that that will only increase as the summer goes on.

Todd Barry is, too, on Cape Cod. Already, he’s had customers come by for curbside pickup who had driven more than three hours up from Connecticut just for the day, “to have lunch here and just to do something different,” he said. 

“On the one hand, the economy is taking a huge hit … which is a very scary thing. So you’d say to yourself, not as many people are going to come to the Cape. But on the other hand, people are cooped up and the Cape is close to a number of large urban areas and fairly large populations. So, maybe some people will come.”

Barry, and many others whose livelihoods depend on summer tourism, hope they do. 

But local officials in some summer communities, including on the Cape, are asking tourists to continue to stay away and hold off on non-essential travel. 

“Please understand that Provincetown is still adhering to the Governor’s Stay-at-home Advisory and therefore we are not prepared to start our summer quite yet,” town manager Robin Craver wrote in an open letter last week. “Until such time as we have a solid re-opening plan, the Town is unable to accommodate our normal summer crush of visitors.”

Many business owners, though, are anxious to get at least some visitors back, and say they’re confident they have the necessary protocols in place to reopen and keep both their staff and customers safe. 

Judith Stiles, who owns the Newcomb Hollow Shop in Wellfleet on the Cape has spent a lot of time getting ready for that.

“We have a plastic sneeze guard going up,” she said. “We’re going to have brand new plastic gloves at the door, for each person to take one, dispose of them when they leave. We’re going to have masks if somebody forgets their mask. We’re going to allow maybe four people in at a time. We’re cleaning the store head to toe. We have many things in place. We’re ready for this.”

I would be ecstatic if in October I could tell you I did half the business that I do in a normal season.

-Todd Barry, owner of Moby Dick’s Restaurant on Cape Cod

She and other local business owners she knows are frustrated that small retail shops on the Cape — and short-term rentals — were not included in Phase 1 of Massachusetts’ reopening plan. 

“Many of the businesses that are retail in Wellfleet are not geared to curbside pickup,” Stiles said. “They’re geared to browsing. They have a lot of merchandise, it doesn’t always show up so well on a website. Many of the shoppers here are senior citizens who are not interested in buying things online, they want to go into the store.”

Already, she feels the brief summer season slipping away. 

Wendy Northcross, who runs the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce, is concerned about that, too — that some small businesses and restaurants won’t survive if they’re not able to open soon, in some capacity. 

“We have twice the number of businesses that depend on the travel and tourism industry on Cape Cod than we do in other parts of Massachusetts,” she said. “Given that it’s a short season and our over-dependency on this type of business, we have to maximize every day.”

Whether that’s able to happen, though, will depend on the state’s ability to keep new coronavirus infections, hospitalizations and deaths low as it reopens, and on visitors and residents wearing masks and continuing to practice social distancing. 

“If people adhere to these health precautions, then I think we’ve got a good shot of being able to reopen,” Cyr, the Massachusetts senator, said. “If people are not taking personal responsibility and not following these guidelines, that’s going to put our communities at risk from a health perspective, and it puts our economic vitality at risk as well.”

Even the most optimistic projections for this summer, though, are well below what anyone in any other year would consider success. 

For Shawn Harman, in Ocean City, just surviving will be enough. 

“Our goals this summer are not to turn a huge profit or anything like that,” he said. “Our goal is to be able to pay all of our employees and be here next year to do it again.”

For Lars Johnson, and a lot of people he knows in Door County, getting to 50% of normal would be a win. 

“I believe that’s the magic number right now,” he said. 

It is for Todd Barry, in Wellfleet, too. 

“I would be ecstatic if in October I could tell you I did half the business that I do in a normal season,” he said. “Ecstatic.”

Recently, he’s had a few people call him up, people who normally rent for a week on the Cape every single year, and ask if they should still come. 

“I said, yes, please come, we need you.”

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