WELLFLEET — This town’s signature day will be missing in 2020 due to fears about the spread of Covid-19. The select board voted on April 28 to ban public uses of town property for the rest of this year.
That means OysterFest, the mid-October weekend that has attracted crowds of shellfish lovers and sellers since 2001, is canceled.
“We are heartbroken about it, of course,” said Michele Insley, executive director of Wellfleet SPAT. “It’s our primary fundraising event. But last year we had over 23,000 people, and I can’t imagine that many people in close proximity together now.”
SPAT, which stands for Shellfish Promotion and Tasting, plans and runs OysterFest every year.
The decision to disallow any use of town property was discussed at length by the select board, especially whether the ban needs to continue for the rest of the year. But the board decided that the idea of a densely crowded public event taking place in Wellfleet only five months from now is wishful thinking.
“We need to be clear and decisive,” said board member Helen Miranda Wilson. “It only takes two people to spread the virus. We don’t want to string people along.”
Insley can’t blame them.
“We support the select board’s difficult decision,” she said. “Our foremost priority is keeping a safe event as we continue to focus on the message to preserve, promote, and protect the shellfishing community.”
OysterFest is a crucial financial stimulus for shellfishermen on the Outer Cape, as well as a way to raise public awareness of the shellfishing industry.
Last year’s fest was the biggest ever, Insley said. The festival hosted 10 raw bars operated by local shellfishermen, and the crowds consumed 126,940 shellfish, mostly oysters.
Zack Dixon, co-owner of Holbrook Oyster in Wellfleet, is one of the many local shellfishermen missing out on the chance to sell his product at the festival.
“It took me by surprise, it seemed so early, but it sank in quickly,” he said. “It’s understandable, but it’s a bummer for the fishing community.”
Dixon said OysterFest provides vital income for shellfishermen in the fall when demand for oysters is down.
“It’s a good chunk of money for guys heading into the winter,” he said.
To adapt, Dixon has turned Holbrook Oyster into a delivery service, using his shellfish distribution license to deliver his product to residences and organizations from Provincetown to Harwich.
Shellfishermen aren’t the only ones affected by the select board’s decision. The crowds that come to the fest also support Outer Cape hotels, restaurants, convenience stores, and gas stations.
“There will be a trickle-down effect,” said Insley. “We could see an economic impact of two to three million dollars.”
To help support local shellfishers whose incomes have already been hurt by the closure of restaurants and bars, SPAT has launched the Community Food Share Program, purchasing shellfish from local harvesters and distributing it to community kitchens and senior living facilities.
SPAT currently has 59 harvesters participating and is serving 15 community kitchens and assisted living facilities. So far, the program has supplied over 30,000 oysters and clams to people in need.
“To the people who have come to OysterFest all these years, it is because of you that we can do this,” Insley said. “A lot of people don’t realize OysterFest is produced by SPAT for this purpose, to raise money for our community and support them in times like these.”
SPAT is working with four distributors, Holbrook Oyster, Billingsgate Shellfish, Mac’s Kitchen, and the Wellfleet Shellfish Company, to get the bivalves to those in need.
“We want to engage in keeping fishermen and shellfishermen working, so we reached out to local food banks and places like that,” said Dan Brandt, an employee at Wellfleet Shellfish Company. “We want to make sure people have proper nutrition.”