PROVINCETOWN — Short-term rentals bring in visitors and help pay the town’s bills. Year-round rentals are the endangered species that we keep trying to preserve and expand. Seasonal rentals are a sort of middle child — rarely the center of attention.
Seasonal rentals, which are used by seasonal workers, are supposed to be registered with the town, certified, and inspected for safety. Not much of Provincetown’s seasonal inventory is actually registered, though. And this year, in addition to the normal concerns about smoke alarms, fire exits, and safe occupancy levels, there’s something much more serious afoot.
“Our health department knows how interconnected things are here,” said Steve Katsurinis, chair of the board of health. “People are coworkers and friends and housemates. The coronavirus could ripple through that matrix and impact business in a big way, and somewhat randomly.”
Many seasonal workers live in two-, three-, or four-bedroom residences. A three-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment is not uncommon, and it can legally house six people. In a normal season, most of those six people would be working double shifts at two or even three different local businesses in the course of a week.
That means if one person in that household were infected and possibly asymptomatic, there’s a real risk of it spreading to the other five. There could be a wave of temporary closures as a result.
The point of contact tracing, as the Independent reported last week, is to stay ahead of these scenarios. And the point of workplace rules, social distancing, and protective gear is to make sure that an asymptomatic customer or employee isn’t in sufficiently prolonged contact with anyone to result in a workplace transmission. But what about transmission where workers live?
Early in the pandemic, when tests weren’t readily available, the whole household would have been quarantined together for 14 days, explained Sarah Endres, the director of public health at the Visiting Nurse Association, a longstanding nonprofit that is managing most of the Cape’s contact tracing efforts. Now, with rapid tests available in Hyannis, it’s more likely that contact tracers would direct everyone in a house to isolate until their test results came back in 24 to 48 hours. At that point, a quite frequent result is that the household is split — two members in one bedroom test positive, and the others all test negative. What happens then?
People who test negative can still go to work, said Katsurinis. The sick people in the household would be ordered to self-isolate from the well people as best they could, said Endres. Transmission in these circumstances is somewhat lower than one might imagine, both Katsurinis and Endres pointed out. “Transmission has been sometimes but not always when it comes to sharing a kitchen or a bathroom,” according to Endres.
“Sometimes but not always” is not exactly a reassuring formula for the well person, her coworkers, her employers, and her customers — or her sick housemates, for that matter. So, what if the well people wanted to move out and give their sick housemates space to recover?
“When people say, ‘Should I go live at my mom’s?’ or ‘Should I go stay with a friend?’ Sure!” said Endres. “If you have that option, and you have to work, and you’re in the service industry, it’s not a bad idea. We do try to teach people what isolation is, and how you can do it in your home without the dramatic move-out-of-the-house stuff. We try to help people through the process without those drastic measures.”
The last time Provincetown faced multiple cases, though, it was during the April stay-at-home orders. Most businesses were closed, and few people were working. In a reopened economy, going to work every day while also living with a person with coronavirus puts many more people at risk.
“We are going to have to work with people one-on-one to evaluate the options,” said Katsurinis. “I don’t have a good answer for you on how that’s going to be handled. We have been working on this problem for about three weeks. We have identified some options, [but] we have not figured out how we’ll pay for them, or if they’re even viable. But we do see the problem, and we will try to come up with solutions.”
“The town has a community support liaison,” said Town Manager Robin Craver, “who helps connect people to the services they need, whether it is looking for housing, health services, or basic needs such as finding food pantries or getting a meal from SKIP. The liaison also has a ‘participant need fund,’ and this is money that can go directly to help those in need.
“We are taking a good look at what role town government might have in this situation,” Craver added. “There are so many variables. It will depend on the circumstances and the scope of the problem.”