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Blue water and a strip of beach in Provincetown, Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Houses line the beach, and sailboats with colorful sails are next to the water.
A Provincetown beach

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Restaurants in New England’s Tourism Hot Spots Are Bracing for COVID-19’s Impact on Peak Season

“If restaurants on Cape Cod miss the peak summer season, I fear many — if not most — will never reopen”

With Massachusetts restaurants still closed for dine-in service until at least June 8 — a date that could get pushed back depending on how the first phase of Gov. Charlie Baker’s four-phase reopening process goes — Cape Cod restaurants, and others in New England summer tourism hot spots, are facing a particularly challenging year.

Memorial Day weekend is here, and restaurants in these areas would normally be gearing up for a busy weekend, with crowds of visitors celebrating the unofficial summer kickoff. For many restaurants on the Cape and other New England vacation destinations, tourism season is it: The businesses don’t operate the rest of the year. Even for restaurants that do operate year-round, the next three months are crucial.

Outside of Massachusetts, other parts of New England are moving along a little faster; some Maine counties are already able to permit dine-in service, for example, and several states are allowing outdoor dining. Even so, tourists aren’t necessarily wanted: Maine currently has a mandatory 14-day quarantine rule for out-of-state visitors, meaning that summer weekends are a no-go for out-of-towners. The Maine Tourism Alliance is asking Gov. Janet Mills to reconsider the rule, although many business owners support it and would rather see a slower reopening process.

Restaurant owners throughout the region know that peak season won’t be anywhere close to what it usually is this year, even once dine-in service returns. They’re trying to figure out how to pivot in ways to emphasize takeout service, outdoor dining, and other methods to get around shrinking indoor capacities in hopes that they can possibly break even this summer — or at least not sink further into debt. They’re worried about the safety of their customers and employees, and they’re trying to give back to their struggling communities, which will be hit hard by the expected decrease in tourists this year.

In the Cape Cod town of Dennis, Adam and Erica Dunn would normally be aggressively hiring and training staff around now for the Pheasant’s upcoming busy season. They’ve owned the restaurant since 2018, serving seasonal, local food in a two-century-old space that was previously home to a decades-old restaurant called the Red Pheasant. Peak season runs from late June through Labor Day, says Adam Dunn, with an extra boost from rehearsal dinners and private events for the fall — which are nearly all on hold.

“If restaurants on Cape Cod miss the peak summer season, I fear many — if not most — will never reopen,” says Dunn. “Restaurant margins are brutally tight, and seasonal restaurants often have just enough cash to get through the winter months. Once spring arrives, most can’t open fast enough to get cash flowing again.”

The restaurant laid off its entire staff after shutting down takeout operations after just one week in March. “We just didn’t feel we could guarantee a safe environment for our kitchen staff and my own family,” says Dunn, who lives in a house attached to the restaurant. “We also wanted to send a message to our community that we were doing everything we could on our end to help flatten the curve (and they should too).”

The Pheasant carefully reintroduced takeout on April 20, offering a streamlined preorder process and a rotating, limited menu. The bigger picture, Dunn says, was to look at the summer as a whole and shift the service model accordingly.

“We took a step back to try and picture what the dining landscape might look like on Cape Cod this summer,” says Dunn. “Even if social-distancing guidelines are relaxed, we can’t imagine people will be willing to wait in long lines and pack into restaurants this summer.” The Dunns are planning to focus heavily on takeout and casual outdoor dining (once allowed). Fortunately, the Pheasant has available lawn and garden space, as well as a large parking lot, and the Dunns plan to purchase many picnic tables. This will enable them to reduce the indoor capacity and mainly reserve it for elderly and immunocompromised customers.

In Provincetown, Rob Anderson, cofounder of the Canteen, says he decided to keep the restaurant open for takeout and delivery during the pandemic because it’s already hard to find fresh, affordable food during Provincetown’s usual off-season. “We want to continue to provide that service to our community for as long as we can.” The Canteen is also offering groceries for pickup and delivery — and soliciting donations to cover groceries for members of the Provincetown community who are in need.

The Canteen transitioned from a seasonal restaurant to a year-round restaurant several years ago, filling the quieter winter months with a popular series of holiday markets and pop-ups, so Anderson and cofounder Loic Rossignon are accustomed to using different business models throughout the year.

With tourist season fast approaching, “all of us out here in Provincetown at the end of the earth are bracing for the worst but hoping for the best,” Anderson says, noting that this time of year usually brings a lot of excitement — and anxiety — as visitors start arriving, and there’s a bustle of construction, business reopenings, and other activity.

“None of that is happening this year. The streets are quiet. Businesses aren’t opening. They don’t know when they will. Late May? June? That’s already cutting into the very short time when we’d be able to make money.”

Many of the major summer events that bring in the crowds have already been canceled, Anderson says, and some businesses have already announced that they won’t open for the season. “My guess is that many will give it a go but will lose money or not make enough this year to survive,” says Anderson.

As a restaurant owner on the Cape, Anderson’s no stranger to challenges: Operating a business in an area that relies so heavily on seasonal tourism is always about “the unevenness and the uncertainty,” he says. “It’s just the reality we face operating out here. So we’re used to operating in this space of trauma — always on edge, always ready to fight.”

But the effects of a global pandemic are above and beyond the usual challenges. “I think it’s almost as if we are all paralyzed. Just waiting. We don’t know what’s coming, and we don’t know how to prepare for it.”

Outsiders have a rosy image of Cape Cod — “the leisure activities, the wealth, the good life,” says Anderson. But the reality is that there are many year-round residents who work in the service industry. Many work paycheck to paycheck and have trouble accessing health care. Addiction and mental health problems are prevalent, he says, not to mention a scarcity of affordable housing, a large population of older and immunocompromised residents, and undocumented workers without safety nets.

“Over the decades, the economy of the Outer Cape has become narrower and narrower,” says Anderson. “It’s now so heavily reliant on tourism that without tourism, it won’t survive. That will have a human toll. And the brunt of that toll will fall on the shoulders of the working people here. I fear we’re headed for a period of prolonged pain and suffering.”

In Falmouth, Eater Young Gun Laura Higgins-Baltzley is in the midst of revamping her restaurant the Buffalo Jump, which was previously known, in part, for its adventurous tasting-menu dinners with a hyperlocal focus on the Cape and its history. With Higgins-Baltzley’s husband and co-chef Brandon Baltzley in the midst of moving out of the kitchen and into a new industry, Higgins-Baltzley was already planning to permanently do away with tasting-menu dinners, starting with the 2021 season, but COVID-19 necessitated ending them now.

Instead, Higgins-Baltzley is cutting down occupancy on her already small indoor dining area, which overlooks the 20-acre Coonamessett Farm on which it resides. She’s focusing on takeout meals that can be eaten outdoors and on the farm, particularly affordable breakfasts and lunches, as well as prepared meals sold in the farm store. She plans to add options like farm picnic lunches and a dinner CSA, essentially a prepaid meal plan.

While many restaurant owners see the temporary pivot to takeout and delivery as unsustainable in the long run, Higgins-Baltzley could actually see the model working for the Buffalo Jump on a long-term basis. “We have such a unique space and arrangement, providing for the farm store,” she says, “that a takeout-only model coupled with prepared meals has the potential to be sustainable if and when we bring back our small staff to help.”

On the Maine island of Vinalhaven, a summer destination accessible by ferry, the Nightingale, a seasonal restaurant, is reopening this weekend, offering takeout only for now. It’s strange being a seasonal restaurant right now, says co-owner Lauren Soutiere Weisenthal, because there’s an opportunity to see what year-round restaurants are already doing to adapt and how takeout is working out, but there are still bills to pay. Mortgage, insurance, and other fixed costs don’t disappear even if the restaurant is only open five months of the year.

“We feel a desperate need to reopen,” says Soutiere Weisenthal, “to avoid sinking — even more — into debt, to feed the community, to goddamn do something. But, with costs at an all-time high, our island in recession, and fewer visitors, I am worried that opening for takeout may sink us further in the hole.”

But that’s the only option for now. To start, the Nightingale will be open a few days a week, which is similar to how it usually operates during the slower part of the season. This time, though, there’ll be masks, touchless takeout through a window, and other safety protocols in place.

“My husband/business partner and I live above the restaurant, so we are literally quarantined here in the building,” says Soutiere Weisenthal. “We’ll have one employee doing the packaging and expo, and we will require her to quarantine as well.”

The Nightingale team would normally be working hard right now making renovations and improvements to the restaurant for the new season; it’s always “a marathon run up to opening day,” says Soutiere Weisenthal. This season, the team was planning to resurface the kitchen floor, add a new prep area, and more, but these projects tend to run up debt that would usually be paid off later in the summer — not this year.

Instead, Soutiere Weisenthal is busy checking in with farmers and vendors to coordinate deliveries and see what will be available — an “expensive and tricky” process on an island in the best of times. “We had it down to a science last year. Now, I’m starting almost from scratch because deliveries are happening less frequently.”

This season is about survival, not improvement. The takeout-only model feels “super risky,” says Soutiere Weisenthal, “and I hate risk.” But she’s run the numbers and thinks it may be possible to break even. “I’m super worried that our island’s lobster-based economy is going to be in the toilet, meaning our customers are also going to be broke. This whole plan is about survival of the business. We want to make sure that when things return to normal, there’s still a Nightingale. If we miss our peak window — just eight short weeks, that’s it — there’s no recovery.”

While any hope of a typical New England summer seems unrealistic right now, the restaurant owners have some optimism about the future — optimism that the industry can successfully adjust and move forward, that customers will continue to show loyalty and support, that restaurants and chefs will continue to find ways to help their communities in times of need, and that people will simply never stop loving the feel of going out to eat.

“I am optimistic that people want to eat from restaurant kitchens,” says Dunn. “Restaurants are able to provide a quality and variety that is unparalleled in amateur home cooking. The weather on Cape Cod is going to turn on soon, and people will want to be outside — in their backyards, at the beach, at the lake, enjoying life with a renewed vigor and perspective on what’s really important. Food will always be a major part of that perspective.”

COVID-19 Coverage on Eater [EBOS]