PROVINCETOWN — Cape Cod’s business and political leaders say the stars are aligning for a record-breaking “biggest season ever” for summer tourism.
A third of Americans have already received one dose of Covid vaccine, and at current rates another third could have one shot by Memorial Day. Many people who worked from home all last year never saw their incomes decline but did see their opportunities to spend money dramatically curtailed. International travel is still difficult, but Cape Cod’s beaches and outdoor recreation are just a short drive away for millions of people. Already, hotel bookings are through the roof.
“There is pent-up demand, and it’s extremely strong,” said Gary Thulander, managing director of the 107-year-old Chatham Bars Inn, who was invited to the Cape Cod Covid-19 Response Task Force’s press call last week to discuss the upcoming season. “We already had a historic January-February-March; we have a historic April coming up. I believe it will be the best year Chatham Bars Inn has ever had.”
“There appears to be unprecedented demand,” said Wendy Northcross, CEO of the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce. “One of our property management companies said their listings were completely sold out as of two weeks ago. By any metric you can use, we’re breaking records.”
“We are really looking down the barrel of what’s going to be the strongest summer I’ve ever seen,” said Mac Hay, CEO of Mac’s Seafood, which has five restaurants between Provincetown and Dennis as well as retail and wholesale fish markets. “All indications lean toward being — I don’t want to use the word ‘swamped’ — but I think among business owners on the Cape, there’s a sense that we simply won’t be able to meet the demand without an increased labor force.
“We have jobs across the board in every department, from dishwasher to senior management, and they’re incredibly hard to fill,” Hay continued. “The elephant in the room is the housing situation. We aren’t going to resolve our labor issues, seasonal or year-round, until we somehow address the housing crisis we are seeing.
“The median cost of a home in Provincetown is pushing north of $900,000,” said Hay. “Why would someone rent their house to a year-round person trying to get a foothold here when they could sell for an extraordinary amount?”
State Sen. Julian Cyr echoed Hay’s concerns. “Mac’s note about the housing crisis here — it really is what has been and will continue to suffocate our economy,” said Cyr. “The fact that our communities have not dealt adequately with housing production is really a crisis. Someone like me can barely afford to live on the Outer Cape, and I make pretty good money.
“I am going to be pushing our communities to shed our NIMBY-ism, abandon our racist zoning policies and practices, and make sure we meet the moment,” Cyr declared. “If we don’t, Cape Cod and the Islands being a vibrant, year-round community is just going to wither.”
The Visa Gap
Cape Cod has been getting about 25 percent of its 20,000 seasonal workers from overseas, Northcross told the Covid response task force. These people, too, need places to stay.
The J-1 student exchange program brings international college students to the U.S. for a summer of work followed by a few weeks of travel; the H-2B guest worker program supplies many workers for jobs in agriculture, lodging, and landscaping. Both programs are up in the air this year, as immigration restrictions imposed by the Trump administration expired only on March 31. Most countries that send J-1 students are not subject to travel restrictions at this point.
The key issue for both programs is that they typically require a live interview at the U.S. embassy in the worker’s country of origin, and nearly all the U.S. embassies are still not scheduling live interviews because of Covid. People who have worked in the U.S. in the last four years, however, can often qualify for a waiver of the interview.
“The embassy in Jamaica is definitely issuing visas without interviews — albeit slowly,” said Patrick Patrick, president of the Provincetown Chamber of Commerce. Jamaica is the source of a large fraction of the Outer Cape’s H-2B workers. In 2020, a significant number of people came here to work, even though the case count was high in America at the time and almost nonexistent in Jamaica.
The J-1 program is tied to the academic calendar, however, and if students aren’t able to get their approvals in order, they’ll start to lose precious months from their time here. Last year’s spring shutdowns nearly extinguished that summer’s J-1 program, and there is concern something similar could happen this year.
“I have fewer students to send than in years before,” said Antoni Slavimirov, owner of the Agency for International Mobility, a recruitment and visa services agency in Bulgaria, the country of origin for most J-1 students on the Outer Cape. “The embassy says maybe they will tell us something in two weeks,” said Slavimirov. In his experience, when the students don’t know what will happen, they make other plans.
Meanwhile, Northcross said the Chamber of Commerce is exploring “some very specific recruitment tied to transportation, focusing on Bristol County and New Bedford.” While that might bring workers to jobs in the Mid Cape, New Bedford is two hours away from the Outer Cape, and summer traffic makes the trip even longer.
When Hiring Breaks Down
As nearly any Outer Cape employer can attest, finding people who want to move here isn’t really the problem. When there’s nothing to rent and nothing to buy, though, hiring breaks down. Housing production can’t add units as fast as the short-term rental market removes them.
Responses include an effort by the Wellfleet Planning Board to amend the town’s bylaws to encourage the building of accessory dwelling units (ADUs), but that plan was shelved by the board. A group of citizens is trying to revive it. Provincetown’s ADU bylaw has barely been used. Truro’s affordable housing project at the Cloverleaf has been taken to Land Court. There is a ballot measure to create a year-round market-rate rental housing trust in Truro. At the same time, there is also a proposal to replace the zoning board that approved the Cloverleaf project with a newly elected board.
Summer camps may struggle to house their counselors, but even town managers have a hard time finding a place to live. Every kind of person needs a place to sleep at night, and the Outer Cape now has little housing to offer at any point on the wage scale. According to the Cape Cod Commission’s datacapecod.com, there are 4,680 units of housing in Provincetown, but only 1,702 resident households. Only 3 percent of Truro’s housing units are rented year-round, according to the commission’s data.
“I’m hoping that post-Covid, we continue the discussion of challenges employers face,” said Hay. “In order to see a robust and growing economy on Cape Cod, we need to focus on the issues that are causing this real trouble.”
Editor’s note: This article has been edited from its original form to reflect more accurately the status of a proposal to amend Wellfleet’s zoning bylaw regulating accessory dwelling units.