WELLFLEET — The board of the nonprofit Shellfish Promotion and Tasting (SPAT) announced on June 25 that the annual Wellfleet OysterFest, scheduled for the weekend of Oct. 16 and 17, had been called off for the second consecutive year. The official reason was to protect public health, but the delay may serve as a chance for organizers to rethink some aspects of the event.
The Fest’s popularity — it grew from an informal get-together on the town pier in 2000 into Wellfleet’s busiest weekend of the year, attracting about 23,000 people in 2019, according to SPAT — has become its Achilles’ heel in a not-yet-post-pandemic season.
The decision to cancel “was not made lightly,” said Nancy O’Connell, president of the SPAT board. Getting to “No” involved discussions with the Wellfleet Select Board, interim Town Administrator Charlie Sumner, the police and fire depts., and town Health and Conservation Agent Hillary Greenberg-Lemos, O’Connell said.
The absence of the Fest for the second year in a row will have a “big negative impact” on the local economy, said O’Connell.
“Its impact is just huge across just about every business in town and surrounding towns,” O’Connell said, “at gas stations, hotels — we’ve had realtors say they’ve had people come to the Fest and want to buy a house in Wellfleet.” All told, the economic benefit of the 2019 festival has been estimated at between $2 million and $3 million.
What another year without the OysterFest will mean for local shellfishermen is not as clear. Theoretically, they profit from the opportunity to sell directly to the public. SPAT estimated that 126,940 pieces of shellfish, mostly oysters, were devoured at the 2019 edition.
Calls to various shellfishermen for comments on the cancellation were not returned. No reply came to messages left with Nancy Civetta, the town’s shellfish constable. Long days of sunlight mean this is a busy time for those working on the flats.
“Selling 125,000 oysters in one day is a good thing,” said Alex Hay, owner of Wellfleet Shellfish Company, a wholesale operation that handles many producers’ harvests. “But in the grand scheme of things, that’s not so many oysters.” What Hay worries about more, he said, is how this second cancellation could affect the Wellfleet oyster brand.
“The Fest is followed far and wide,” Hay said, “so it’s a way to really get the Wellfleet oyster and what’s special about it out there.”
O’Connell agreed that the importance of the Fest goes well beyond a single weekend. It establishes the town as a “premier oyster destination,” she said. “We want people to enjoy the oysters here and then ask for them when they go home.”
While festival crowds may seem fixated on food and drink, Frances Francis, owner of the eponymous Main Street women’s clothing store, said OysterFest weekend was the biggest of the year for her business. She described last year’s cancellation as “devastating” and “a huge blow,” and said that if it weren’t for higher than usual sales so far this summer there would be a risk of her shop having to close. She wishes the SPAT board had not decided to cancel.
Susan Leigh Bonn, owner of Drift Home and Gift, also on Main Street, originally thought the decision to cancel was made prematurely, but now thinks it seems more appropriate with the recent spike in Covid-19 cases on the Cape. “Anything that protects the public, I support,” she said. Leigh Bonn loves the revenue and excitement brought by the Fest, but said that one weekend doesn’t make or break the season.
Jeanie Bessette, owner of Ragg Time Ltd., said she had mixed emotions about the decision to cancel, but added that the Fest’s large crowds are a safety concern — coronavirus or no. She said she hopes a two-year break will help slow the festival’s growth.
The SPAT board’s cancellation statement promised a “new and improved” Wellfleet OysterFest in October 2022.
One possible change that has been floated in the past is moving the main attractions — the food stands, crafts, and the stage where music and the “shuck off” take place — to the town pier.
A chance to rebuild SPAT’s leadership may also be in order.
Alex Hay was a founding member of the organization behind the festival, and for years provided logistical help for it. In particular, his warehouse became a kind of staging area, handling at a discounted rate the required tagging and refrigeration of the oysters local shellfishermen would then offer at the Fest.
Both Alex and his brother Mac Hay, who was also a founder, resigned from the board in 2019, with some other members suggesting that, because of Alex’s wholesale business and Mac’s markets and restaurants, the two had too great a financial interest in the success of the OysterFest to serve on its board.
O’Connell said the Hays’ resignations had nothing to do with the decision to cancel this year, an assessment Alex Hay agrees with. “The festival went off just fine in 2019,” he pointed out. “But after this hard year, I can understand how the whole undertaking might seem daunting.”
Michele Insley, SPAT’s executive director, is reported to have resigned, but declined to comment.
With vaccine-induced herd immunity still to be accomplished, oyster grants to transfer, and plans for an improved organization and festival to build, the people who make the Wellfleet OysterFest happen will be plenty busy, even without a festival to run.
In the meantime, SPAT says, people can support the town’s shellfishing industry by buying more Wellfleet oysters and clams.