PROVINCETOWN — Memorial Day weekend is two weeks away, but there is no official guidance yet on whether anyone will be allowed to come here.
Since March 31, a standing order from Gov. Charlie Baker has forbidden leisure travel. That order was extended on April 28, and Steve Katsurinis, chair of Provincetown’s board of health, expects it to be extended again, affecting Memorial Day weekend.
The governor may wait, however, until his reopening advisory board issues its report, scheduled for May 18, to announce anything. That could put the whole tourism sector in the position of finding out on a Monday whether or not it’s open for business on Friday.
The Governor’s Order
“The provision and occupancy of lodging for leisure, vacation, and other purposes may not continue.” So said the governor and his commissioner of public health on March 31, shutting down hotels, bed and breakfasts, and short-term rentals on such platforms as Airbnb and Homeaway from March 31 to May 4. Six days before it was set to expire, that order was extended to May 18.
The governor’s order made exceptions only for narrow pandemic-related purposes — chiefly, the provision of lodging to health care workers and to quarantined people. The order also explicitly canceled existing reservations, with the only exception for people who had already checked in to their lodging on March 31.
If it were extended in the same or similar form, the order could require the cancellation of more than a hundred short-term rental reservations here.
The market-research website AirDNA aggregates real-time listing and booking data from Airbnb and Homeaway/VRBO. On Monday, May 4, AirDNA showed 174 active bookings for Memorial Day weekend in Provincetown; 131 of those bookings were made on or before March 4, meaning they were booked before the pandemic began. If the governor’s order becomes an advisory, or a phased-reopening plan, these bookings could probably all remain in place.
“The fact that we may be finding out on May 18 what the rules are for May 19 — it’s absolutely bananas,” said Katsurinis. “It’s no way to make public policy. Clearly, there’s no way we’re going to be able to open on May 19 when he’s getting the [advisory board] report on May 18. He’s going to have to extend it. But instead of the road ahead, he is giving us the next few feet ahead.”
After the Gov, Then What?
At some point, though, Katsurinis expects the governor to switch from an essential/nonessential framework to setting guidelines for safe operation. The board of health and other town boards will then be adding their own guidelines as well. Many of those will also be advisories on safe operation, but when it comes to lodging, there is an interest in metering the town’s total occupancy up and down, to account for developing coronavirus metrics, said Katsurinis.
How to lower and raise the town’s safe occupancy in a transparent, fair, and effective way is still being discussed by the recovery coalition and the lodging community.
All of this adds up to a striking lack of guidance for second-home owners who rent their homes short-term. The governor’s actions, local health guidelines, and local efforts to control total occupancy are all unknowns. (Not to mention the great unknown: the progress of the pandemic itself.)
Katsurinis was able to make one variable more clear, though.
“At some point, if we were to temporarily block new bookings, because we’re trying to control the town’s total population, and the science and health data warrant that, I think people could understand and accept that. Canceling existing reservations, I think, would seem pretty extreme, and maybe arbitrary, unless we were some kind of epicenter of the virus.”
This means reservations made now for August might be more likely to stand, even if last-minute reservations are shut down.
More From AirDNA
The AirDNA website is a trove of other interesting information about Provincetown’s short-term rental market. There were 1,148 houses or apartments listed in August 2019, or 27 percent of the town’s 4,300 habitations. Those 1,148 units contain at least 2,327 bedrooms, and so could house up to around 5,000 guests.
In 2019, 1,101 properties were booked at some point in the month of July. Right now, the busiest day of July 2020 has only 218 bookings — suggesting that current bookings amount to just 20 percent of last year’s.
The last night of the original lockdown, Monday, May 4, had 138 bookings; 61 percent of them — that’s 84 bookings — were made after the lockdown was announced on March 31. That’s either a lot of health care workers and quarantined people — or a lot of people ignoring the governor’s order. Or possibly both.