WELLFLEET — The “Coming Attractions” marquee at the Wellfleet Cinemas is empty, an indication that nobody knows what’s coming next. Spring is a time for preparation and planning for the July-August tourist season, and even though the coronavirus has not yet emerged widely here, its effects are already hitting hard.
Just last week, many people said it was “too early to tell” what summer would bring. This week brought a dose of reality in the form of the first confirmed case on the Cape. Emergency closures of bars, restaurants, schools, and other institutions, and cancellation or postponement of conferences, concerts, and other large gatherings have followed.
The outlook boils down to three questions: Will the tourists come? Will the workers be here? And will anybody have any money?
Peter Hall, owner of Van Rensselaer’s and Catch of the Day restaurants in South Wellfleet, said his plans to bring 18 summer workers from eight countries are up in the air. “If you had asked me a month ago, I was all hired up,” he said. “Now, I don’t know if I’m going to get any of them. We might have a good summer, we might have a rotten summer. We will do what we have to do.”
The U.S. State Dept. last week announced a 60-day “pause” in international exchange programs that allow students from other countries to come work here. That includes the J-1 program that covers Hall’s workers.
“If worse comes to worst, we might not get our summer workers,” said Radu Luca, executive director of the Provincetown Chamber of Commerce.
U.S. restrictions on travel from Europe are initially scheduled to last just 30 days, but no one knows what will happen after that. Travel restrictions within Luca’s native Romania may pose problems for summer workers on H-2B visas, he said.
As for travel within the United States, while restrictions are still limited to specific areas, that could change.
“In a situation like this you plan for the worst and hope for the best,” said Cape Air CEO Dan Wolf. “Advance reservations are really starting to show the impact.”
Wolf estimated his airline’s reservations for June through August are down 30 to 40 percent, while closer reservations are down about 10 percent. “If the timing is relatively short, there is time for this to recover, and for us to have a good summer,” he said. “But if this was June right now, we would be expecting a serious decline.”
Travel and tourism generated over $1.2 billion in direct spending by domestic visitors and $100 million by international visitors to Cape Cod in 2018, said Wendy Northcross of the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce. It is an important part of the Cape’s $14 billion economy, employing nearly 10,000 people, she added.
Sometimes a global crisis encourages more people to travel domestically. That might give a boost to the Cape. The overwhelming majority of visitors arrive here by car and live within a day’s drive.
Hotel reservations on Cape Cod seem to be coming in at normal levels for summer, but reservations can be easily canceled. “Our primary visitors tend to book very close to the time of travel, thus we may not know of any potential business loss until closer to the summer season,” Northcross said.
Cruise ships, which have become the most visible incubators of coronavirus, have been a growing part of Provincetown’s tourist economy in the past few years, though the ships that stop here are generally smaller, carrying dozens or hundreds of passengers, not thousands. Luca said six cruise ship companies have scheduled 22 port calls in Provincetown this year, and so far none have been canceled.
Jim Russo, executive director of the Eastham Chamber of Commerce, said he is already focused on readying solutions for those who may be hit hard later. “My immediate concern is to get the information on business recovery resources, and the tools to implicate such procedures to our members that are or will be affected in some way by COVID-19,” Russo said.
The challenge for local business people is to make decisions based on facts, rather than fear. The latter, he said “seems the present-day hallmark for even the slightest change in our daily expectations.”