PROVINCETOWN — This week and next, town governments on the Outer Cape will be rolling out changes to traffic flow, restaurant rules, bathroom arrangements, and dozens of other adjustments to accommodate a smaller-than-normal flow of tourists safely.
Memorial Day weekend provided a dry run of what a lower-volume summer might feel like. There were certainly tourists here, despite the fact that the state is only in phase one of Gov. Charlie Baker’s reopening scheme. How the limited traffic flowed, where there was compliance, and where there was not, are all potential indicators of the summer to come.
Who and How Many?
Leisure accommodations are still officially closed in phase one, including hotels, guest houses, and short-term (fewer than 32 days) home rentals. Property owners can still enjoy their homes, of course, and they can let their friends and family enjoy them, too. But accepting paid customers looking for a vacation is expressly forbidden under the governor’s current order.
“We’re receiving about 10 or 15 calls a day about Airbnb and short-term-rental violations — more on weekends,” said Steve Katsurinis, chair of Provincetown’s board of health. “If the complaint passes initial muster, then Aaron Hobart, the code enforcement officer, contacts the owner by phone or email. He starts with an education piece: this is the governor’s order, this is why it’s in place. Our main purpose is to get people to comply going forward.”
If it becomes clear there was a commercial transaction involved, Hobart can assess a $300 fine, which goes to the commonwealth’s general fund, said Katsurinis. Repeat offenders could be required to appear before the board of health to explain themselves. A hotel or guest house breaking the rules could face punitive action by both the board of health and the licensing board.
“Most people, when they’re asked these questions, do one of two things,” said Katsurinis. “They apologize and say they won’t do it again. And then they immediately point out other people that they think are doing it also. We have a very engaged town.”
The market-research website AirDNA.co aggregates information from Airbnb, VRBO, and HomeAway, showing both upcoming bookings and historical data. For the night of Sunday, May 24, there were 189 properties booked in Provincetown, 80 in Truro, 85 in Wellfleet, and 112 in Eastham. Using the maximum number of properties listed last summer as a reference, those numbers indicate that between 11 and 17 percent of each town’s short-term-rental capacity was commercially booked on Sunday night.
With campgrounds and hotels closed, but with many home owners inviting family and friends to town, the net effect was a relatively low level of overall occupancy. So how did mask-wearing and social distancing play out?
“Mask compliance seems to be very good,” said Katsurinis. “I heard a WBUR report that said we had the highest compliance rate they found in the commonwealth, like 98 percent.” Scott Kirsner of the Boston Globe conducted the informal survey in Provincetown, and found only two people out of 100 not wearing masks — and theirs were around their necks.
The “wait outside” model of retail and take-out dining may have some kinks to work out, though. Curaleaf experienced a surge of marijuana customers when it was allowed to open on Monday. The lines of authority and responsibility on Commercial Street, it seems, aren’t always clear.
“It’s the board of health’s responsibility to enforce the mask order,” said Katsurinis. “If something ends up in an altercation, that’s when the police are involved. The police are not going to walk around with a gun on their hip and tell people to put a mask on. That’s not their role. From the board of health’s perspective, it’s also not the business owner’s responsibility to police mask-wearing off their property.”
How and where people gather is more complicated, though. “If people want to come onto a property, and they’re blocking a right of way, that’s always been a problem for a business,” Katsurinis said. “People can’t stand in the middle of the street while they wait for a table.”
In a world where everyone has to wait outside and six feet apart, however, finding enough room for everyone isn’t easy. The logistics of where people can sit and stand still needs some attention — before the resumption of phase two tourism means there really are fights to break up.