Alex Morse, the town administrator of Provincetown, Massachusetts, wasn’t overly concerned when two new cases of COVID-19 were reported on July 9, 2021. The Cape Cod beach town — a small chunk of land at the easternmost point of Massachusetts known as a hub for LGBTQ culture, nightlife, and the arts, especially during the summer — had just celebrated the Fourth of July, which meant an influx of tourists strolling up and down Commercial Street, its main thoroughfare, popping into shops, bars, restaurants, and dance clubs. Sporadic cases were to be expected, but Provincetown had done the work to protect itself against the worst outcomes of the pandemic: Some 95 percent of its temporary and permanent residents were fully inoculated.
Just a few days later, though, Morse noticed something odd: a line of cars backed up in front of Outer Cape Health Services. The health center had been a site for COVID testing and vaccination throughout the pandemic, but it was suddenly overwhelmed. On July 12, Morse called the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and requested that it deploy a mobile testing site in the center of town. It was installed two days later, and by July 16, according to Morse, it became clear that Provincetown was at the epicenter of a COVID cluster. Alarmingly, a majority of the people testing positive for the virus were purportedly fully vaccinated.
The Provincetown cluster is now known to have been caused by the highly contagious delta variant, which is currently responsible for more than 80 percent of new infections in the U.S., and has halted much of the country’s plans for a normal(ish) summer. Contact tracers have so far connected more than 900 cases to the cluster, roughly three-quarters of which occurred in fully vaccinated people, known as breakthrough infections.
In the days and weeks after it became apparent that COVID-19 had spread throughout the community, even to fully vaccinated people, Provincetown’s dance floors, bars, restaurants, and shops emptied — precisely at what would normally be the height of the summer season, when many businesses generate the vast majority of their income for the year. The delta outbreak in Provincetown seems to be receding — on July 26, the municipal government issued a mask mandate requiring vaccinated and unvaccinated people to wear masks indoors, and Provincetown’s daily positivity rate has dropped more than 10 percentage points, to 3.8 percent as of August 4. But operators of restaurant and nightlife establishments say that business remains down in the wake of the cluster and press coverage of it — as much as 50 percent below pre-delta numbers for some — and they’re worried that another wave could trigger the end of the summer season. Workers, meanwhile, are concerned about lost wages and the heightened potential of getting sick on the job. These conditions leave open the question of whether Provincetown’s restaurants, bars, and clubs can recover their lost business in the remaining month of summer, and many owners are uncertain.
At the same time, Provincetown’s remarkable test-and-trace effort — driven by local nurses, business owners, workers, residents, and visitors alike — proved vital for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s understanding of how the delta variant infects vaccinated people. It is now known that people infected with the highly infectious strain of COVID, including those who are fully vaccinated, carry massive amounts of the virus in their nose and throats: up to 1,000 times more than people infected with the original strain of SARS-CoV-2, making it highly transmissible. “The queer community has a history of regular testing, and I think it’s a testament to our community, and how seriously we take our health,” Morse says. “Here in Provincetown, of course, but in the queer community in general. There’s also a concern and care not just for yourself, but for others around you too. And I think that’s been very evident here and is something that we should be proud of as a community.”
Provincetown consists of just under 18 square miles, and most of that is occupied by dunes, beaches, and forestland. Commercial Street, where life takes place in town, is just 2.5 miles tip to tip; one can bike its entire length in under 15 minutes. And yet in this small expanse of space, and mostly on or adjacent to this single street, it’s possible to find just about whatever you’re looking for in terms of nightlife. There are leather bars, fancy cocktail bars, bars that host drag shows, dive bars, lesbian bars, and straight bars. There are small and sweaty basement dance clubs, and there are big and airy beachside dance clubs. Some DJs pander to their crowds with pop music, and others spin esoteric records meant only for the cool kids.
Provincetown’s nightlife scene is, in a word, legendary, and in the days and weeks leading up to the Fourth of July, the vibe was celebratory. Writing in the Atlantic, Spencer Kornhaber said the mood around town was “jubilant” and described a scene at a party in a basement bar that featured “fog machines, glittery outfits, funky house music, and oppressive, humid body heat” where the DJ and crowd participated in a call-and-response to Jennifer Lopez’s “Waiting for Tonight.” People had returned to the packed dance floors of the Atlantic House and Paramount, and they were going out to see drag queens like Dina Martina perform at the Crown & Anchor.
And why wouldn’t they? It was Hot Vax Summer, after all. The CDC said in May that fully vaccinated people could safely resume most activities indoors and outdoors without wearing masks or socially distancing themselves, and the vaccination rate in Provincetown was higher than almost anywhere in the country. People on the Outer Cape were ready to party, and the message from the government was that if you were vaccinated, it was relatively safe to do so.
“There was a hard seltzer at 10 in the morning kind of vibe,” says Rebecca Orchant, who owns the popular West End cafe and provisions shop Pop + Dutch with her husband Sean Gardner. “I walked down the street after a shift at the shop at 4:40 in the afternoon and there was a guy who was carrying a cocktail down the street — which is not unusual or surprising — wearing a tank top that said ‘vaccinated and ready to fuck.’ And I was like, ‘I hope you get to, I hope this is going to work for you.’”
Steven Schnitzer, who owns a pair of restaurants and Velvet Bar, a popular nightclub located a few blocks from MacMillan Pier — where many tourists happily disembark from ferries at the beginning of their Provincetown vacations and drowsily reboard at the end — says that the drinking and dining industry was having a banner summer in the months before the delta variant began spreading through town. Sales were up compared with past years, and his servers and bartenders were raking in tips. “Everybody wanted to party,” says Schnitzer. “They couldn’t wait to kick their shoes off and dance, order an extra-tall drink, and feel as though life was renewed.”
But then all of those cars started lining up outside Outer Cape Health Services. Soon after that, it was clear that COVID was surging in Provincetown. The joyous vibe quickly shifted to one of anxiety. Dance floors were instantly less packed — some shut down entirely as a result — and fewer people were going out to restaurants and bars. Mark Louque, who runs a legendary costume and dance party called F— Bash in the basement of the Governor Bradford restaurant, and who tested positive for COVID during the delta cluster, hasn’t hosted one in weeks. Because Louque’s party takes place in a basement, ventilation is poor, providing COVID with the perfect conditions to spread. He plans to remain closed until the positive test rate is below 3 percent for five consecutive days, in line with the town’s mask mandate. Louque says this hurts financially, but he wants to show the community that he cares about health and safety above all — even if he doesn’t exactly agree with the mask mandate, which he calls “a bit harsh.”
Since the mask mandate went into effect, the cluster is receding: As of August 4, Provincetown’s five-day positive test rate was at 4 percent, down from 13.5 percent on July 18. But the effects of the outbreak continue to linger, and nightlife is bearing the brunt of them. Emerson Breneman, a DJ based on the Outer Cape, says most of his Provincetown shows have dried up, though his work in nearby Truro and Wellfleet has been unchanged. Schnitzer closed his club, Velvet, soon after the outbreak began. Weeks later, he says people in town still seem nervous — he isn’t seeing anyone out at night except for tourists — and that he is so short-staffed at his restaurants, which share a space with his club, that he can’t risk losing anyone to a COVID infection.
Louque, the DJ and promoter who runs the popular party in the basement of the Governor Bradford, thinks the town should have prepared better for a situation like this. “Six months ago, we should have had a plan in place for when, not if — because we all knew that this uptick in cases was going to happen again,” he says. “There should have been a plan in place to nip it in the bud really quickly, and have all workers and all businesses aware of what could potentially happen [when] the numbers go up. They didn’t do it. They fucked up. And now there’s a lot of people that are starving.”
Nightlife isn’t the only industry struggling in Provincetown. Rob Anderson, the chef and owner at the Canteen, a popular Commercial Street restaurant known for its lobster rolls and beachfront patio, says he’s seen a 35 percent decrease in business since news of the delta cluster broke. “That’s a big hit for us as we head into August,” he says. “In a seasonal economy like ours, at least 25 percent of our annual income comes in during the one month of August. A 35 percent drop across town [would] mean a lot of economic pain for a lot of people who were finally expecting to bring in some income after a year and a half of not making much money, or any money at all.”
Some operators are blaming the renewed mask mandate, which requires all people regardless of vaccination status to wear masks indoors, for some of their problems. They and their workers are the ones expected to police masking requirements, after all, and they’re exhausted. Still, some are making it work: Orchant and Gardner at Pop + Dutch have centered their operational strategy on takeout for the duration of the pandemic, so the reinstated mask mandate hasn’t affected their business. But Orchant understands why some business owners are unhappy about the measure. “For some restaurants and nightclubs and bars — places where, in Provincetown, workers come to make their money for the entire year — right now, a mask mandate kind of fucks them,” she says. “Businesses have been super slow since then, and I totally understand why. But there has to be a hybrid approach. And that has to come from the governor.”
Morse, the town administrator, also believes that intermittent mask mandates aren’t the answer going forward. He and the municipal government are currently considering the viability of a pair of vaccination mandates, one for employees and another for customers. The first is a voluntary program to certify that all staff at a given establishment have been vaccinated; the second would require proof of vaccination from patrons, with a focus on large performance venues and clubs. Morse thinks such measures are inevitable. “In the long term, our way out of this is vaccination,” he says. “It’s not a sustainable solution to have masking in perpetuity, or have masking one week and no masks the next. It’s a new normal, and vaccination long-term is what needs to happen.”
Some venues have already taken it upon themselves to require proof of vaccination for entry. Tea Dance, a popular midday dance party and social gathering that takes place on a large beachfront patio and pool area at the Boatslip hotel, has required it all summer despite the outdoor setting. For Louque, of F— Bash, mandating proof of vaccination is a no-brainer. “I 100 percent think that has to happen,” he says. “Having legitimate proof of vaccination should be required at every indoor space in the entire country.”
But Anderson, of the Canteen, says that the debate over the new mask mandate and potential vaccination mandates has “really done a number on us here. There’s a lot of infighting, and a lot of bitterness on all sides.” There’s also a sense among Provincetown’s business community that the state government let them down. Orchant thinks the statewide COVID restrictions were lifted too hastily — Gov. Charlie Baker rescinded them on May 29, two months sooner than originally planned — and left businesses in Provincetown scrambling to open at capacity and without restrictions after more than a year of doing the opposite.
“It was kind of crazy for people who own businesses and work out here to figure it out,” Orchant says. “Like, ‘Oh, are we just gonna go ahead and do that, like the thousands of dollars of Plexiglas, technological developments, and learning how to run a fucking website — all of that is for nothing now? Okay, cool!’ So I think a lot of people really just were like, ‘Fuck it, let’s throw open the doors and try to get as much money as we possibly can.’ Because we have such a short season out here.”
The Fourth of July functions as the unofficial kickoff to summer in Provincetown, and it is followed quickly by Bear Week, marked by a gathering of hairy and frequently larger gay men. Both weeks are typically extremely busy. This year, the Fourth was beset by rain, and many activities that might have otherwise taken place outdoors were moved indoors. This likely contributed to the delta variant’s ability to spread so quickly. In a paper released on July 30, the CDC said that 469 COVID cases were identified among Massachusetts residents who travelled to Provincetown between July 3 and 17, and that 346 of those cases, or 74 percent, occurred in fully vaccinated people; testing identified the delta variant in 90 percent of specimens taken from 133 patients. The data also reported cases among residents from 22 other states who traveled to Provincetown in the same time period, indicating that the cluster was likely caused by someone traveling to the town from outside of Massachusetts. (Provincetown board of health chair Stephen Katsurinis said as much in the Washington Post.)
“Massachusetts is, I believe, the second-most vaccinated state in the country, so that means that anybody coming to Massachusetts from somewhere else, whatever that population is, there are fewer vaccinated people,” says Dr. Robert Horsburgh, a professor at Boston University who specializes in the epidemiology of AIDS and tuberculosis. “The fact is, we don’t live on an island. Summer people come up here, and they come to a lot of places, and any place that people come to, when they’re coming from a place that’s less vaccinated, is going to increase your risk.”
Seventy-nine percent of breakthrough infections associated with the Provincetown cluster were symptomatic, but because Provincetown’s vaccination rate is so high, it didn’t see a significant uptick in hospitalizations associated with the cluster. More crucially, the cluster didn’t lead to any deaths. (It’s worth noting that the COVID crisis is still largely driven by the unvaccinated.) For Stephen Kissler, a postdoctoral fellow in the department of immunology and infectious disease at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health who Eater spoke with via email, the Provincetown cluster is less of a disaster and more of a success story, at least in terms of how other communities might approach similar situations going forward.
“Importantly, cases were low when the outbreak happened,” says Kissler. “This allowed the test-and-trace infrastructure to do its job efficiently without being totally overwhelmed. Positivity rates in Provincetown are dropping quickly, reflecting both the success of test-and-trace and the value of high vaccination rates in the community — even though the virus can spread, it has a much harder time. This is a lesson for other towns: If we keep baseline spread controlled, we’ll have a much easier time dealing with flare-ups when they occur. When flare-ups do occur, testing, tracing, and masking can help push cases back down, as long as vaccination rates are high enough.”
Dr. Céline Gounder, an infectious disease specialist at Bellevue Hospital in New York, told the New York Times that the data collection effort in Provincetown was “one of the most impressive examples of citizen science I have seen” and said that the people involved “were meticulous in making lists of their contacts and exposures.”
The comprehensive test-and-trace effort, carried out in collaboration between local nurses, business owners, workers, residents, and visitors, allowed the CDC to use the Provincetown data as a key piece of evidence when it announced recently that fully vaccinated people should resume masking in public indoor spaces in parts of the country where the pandemic is surging. A number of people Eater spoke with attributed the gay community’s vigilance around COVID testing and tracing to a heightened awareness of viral transmission — a result, in part, of its cultural memory of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and its ongoing impact. “I don’t find that [vigilance in testing and tracing] surprising considering that those of us who live and work here are a tight, community-centric, mostly progressive town with a history of dealing with plagues, caring for each other, and feeling personally responsible for protecting ourselves and others from viruses — or any other threats, for that matter,” says the Canteen’s Anderson.
Still, a narrative emerged around the idea that the delta spread was caused by recklessness in the gay community. Louque, who runs the party in the basement of the Governor Bradford, says it was “a very catchy story to grab onto and try to point a finger, and say there’s this disaster in Provincetown.” A number of other Provincetown business owners and workers Eater spoke with were also critical of the media’s coverage of the cluster. Breneman, the Outer Cape DJ, is frustrated by the idea that tourists spread the delta variant to the local community through nightclubs, parties, restaurants, and bars, but the local community is left behind to “take the heat for it in the media.”
“We’ve all kind of been thrown to the wolves a little bit here,” says Orchant. “I know that it wasn’t anyone’s intention. But I saw an interview recently, where an epidemiologist referred to the Provincetown cluster as the canary in the coal mine. Yeah. You guys know what happens to the canary, right?”
Dr. William Hanage, an associate professor of epidemiology at Harvard’s public health school, hopes people take the right lessons from what happened in Provincetown. “Provincetown shows that it’s possible to take a pretty big outbreak and bring it under control relatively quickly,” he says. “And that should give us all a good deal of hope ... I would like there to be a bit of chill on the Ptown stuff. Because it’s actually a success story when seen in the round.”
As the U.S. approaches fall and winter, and as the cold weather returns across vast parts of the country, people will again be more likely to gather indoors than outdoors. A month ago, that didn’t seem like such a big deal. The vaccines, which are both safe and highly effective at preventing serious disease, hospitalization, and death, gave countless people hope as they returned to some version of normal life. But what happened in Provincetown this summer shows that the emergence of the delta variant, its ability to infect fully vaccinated people, and their ability to spread the virus complicates all that.
It’s been known for some time that large groups gathering indoors in poorly ventilated spaces can contribute to the spread of COVID. That’s why countless restaurants across the country built makeshift outdoor spaces over the past 18 months, many keeping them open through harsh winter conditions to make ends meet. Now, Provincetown has made it clear that gathering indoors — especially in nightclubs — could be unsafe for everybody, vaccination status notwithstanding. Putting a few tables on the sidewalk and calling it a patio is relatively easy. Building a DJ booth and a dance floor on a sidewalk is a different proposition entirely.
“The coming months are going to be a really awkward dance when it comes to handling delta because it is an extremely transmissible virus,” says Hanage. “The good news is, vaccines work really well to protect against the worst consequences. And if we give those vaccines a leg up in terms of some of the other stuff that we can do to limit transmission, we’ll have a better time of it than we would have otherwise.”