PROVINCETOWN — Business owners are getting creative with plans for surviving what has been a devastating spring and will be a slow summer. While there are lots of ideas about what things might look like this season, there is so far on the Outer Cape no sign of a push to open businesses at the expense of public health.
“Everyone wants to do this right,” said Stephen Katsurinis, chair of the Provincetown Board of Health and a guest house owner. “People getting sick and dying is not what we want.”
At the same time, Katsurinis said, “we don’t want to shut down important events without data. I think when it comes to the fireworks and Carnival, those decisions don’t have to be made right now.”
So how do you strike a balance between the need for continued social distancing and the cozy restaurants, crowded nightclubs, and quaint guest houses that make summer here special?
In Provincetown, ideas include closing Commercial Street to vehicle traffic from 5 to 9 p.m., during the dinner rush, and allowing restaurant seating on the street; lotteries for guest house rooms to spread out visitors; and to-go cocktails to hydrate restaurant revenues.
These and other ideas will be vetted by the town’s newly appointed recovery coalition, made up of about 20 business, public safety, government, health, and social service representatives. The group met for the first time on April 22, after the Independent’s deadline.
The idea of expanding outdoor seating is under discussion in Wellfleet, too. The new Block & Tackle, which will replace the Marconi Beach BBQ & Seafood Restaurant on Route 6, will get its beer trailer with 24 taps pouring for outdoor seating, said co-owner Beth Andreoli.
Asking towns to let up on regulations, fees, and tax payments in the short term is another strategy on the table.
In Provincetown, the select board has already approved a 30-day deferral of tax payments, said Bob Sanborn, executive director of the Provincetown Business Guild. He’s also on the recovery coalition. If that could be extended to a 90-day deferral, it would give small businesses some critical breathing room in their cash flow in the early part of the season. “The town would still get the money, just later,” Sanborn said.
Of course, government revenue from rooms and meals taxes and parking will also be way down. Last week Provincetown Town Manager Robin Craver said it may be necessary to furlough some seasonal town staff.
Labor dilemmas present another set of problems for businesses to solve.
“What do you tell your staff?” said Steven Latasa-Nicks, co-owner of Strangers & Saints. Seasonal staff have mostly not arrived yet, he said. “Many of them take jobs in seasonal restaurants elsewhere. They don’t know when to come back here.”
For foreign workers, there are even more questions.
Between 4,000 and 5,000 J-1 exchange workers come to the Cape every summer, and about 500 land in Provincetown, Latasa-Nicks said. Their travel is restricted until June 1 due to the coronavirus, and even then, their ability to obtain visas on time is uncertain.
While everyone is grateful for the extra $600 weekly in unemployment benefits, this, too, adds to the labor puzzle.
Even though they are needed, it may not be worth it for kitchen staff to come back to work on the part-time schedules available for take-out operations, said Latasa-Nicks.
To get through spring, many restaurants are trying to entice customers to order to go. But Latasa-Nicks, who will open to-go service April 23, discovered that to-go containers and pizza boxes are both in extremely short supply.
Cocktails to go could help make up some revenue lost from bar sales. The governor has already allowed wine and beer to be served to go from restaurants. The state may do the same with cocktails in a can, he said.
Josh Scaturro, an owner of Café Heaven and the Queen Vic Guest House, said Café Heaven seating will decrease by 50 percent if they rearrange the tables so diners are six feet from one another.
“But my bills won’t go down by 50 percent,” he said.
He supports closing Commercial Street to cars for the dinner hour so he can have seating on the street or on the beach. That would allow pedestrians to spread out rather than crowd on the sidewalk, Scaturro said. Retail shops could also benefit from outdoor sales.
A co-owner of 8 Dyer Hotel, Katsurinis suggested a lottery system for rooms, so that guests could be spread around, allowing all inns to get about half their rooms filled.
Not all businesses face the same level of disruption. Liquor and grocery stores remain open, and cleaning businesses have potential in this germaphobic time.
Steve Lam, owner of the Furies in Wellfleet, said his business has developed an array of safety protocols to address the virus, but is still operating way below normal now. “Summer,” he said, “is a giant question mark. But I believe our business will be fine.”
Remember, Scaturro said, people cooped up for months will come back.