A Pandemic At ‘The End Of The World’ – And Provincetown Feels (Closer To) Fine

“It’s almost taking us back to a time when people really cared about each other.”

Hazards present themselves when you’re performing at an outdoor, poolside cabaret. There are no walls to absorb sound. You face wind and rain. There is a time delay for the laughter from the back row to reach you on stage. And when only a narrow partition separates your performance space from the Atlantic Ocean — or, at least, the Provincetown Harbor — you better believe that you’ll be dealing with the elements. 

“I read stuff all the time in my act,” says Judy Gold, who’s performing this summer at Provincetown’s Crown & Anchor poolside cabaret, one of only two venues currently operating during quarantine in this storied seaside town. “My papers have gone in the pool. My papers have been blown all over the place.”

But that’s fine with Gold. She’s one of the few artists and entertainers fortunate enough to have a live performance space this summer, and as a comedian, she’s used to the not-so-ideal location. Just being able to perform “feels so good, I don’t care.” 

No papers blew into the pool the night I attended the Judy and Varla Show, which Gold performs with fellow entertainer Varla Jean Merman (played by Jeffery Roberson). Although Gold did briefly lose her notes in the copy of her new book that she brought on stage with her — a minor glitch. She turned to her self-deprecating advantage as she helplessly leafed through the pages, laughing along with the audience. 

Improv might not be new to comedy, but the fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants approach is now part of Provincetown’s new reality as COVID continues to surge throughout the United States. The seaside town on the northernmost tip of Cape Cod — which has, for decades, called to artists, queer folks, and just about anyone who considers themselves a social outsider — has had to readjust to life under quarantine guidelines. Shops, restaurants, and lodgings began opening only in June under easing, state-wide restrictions. The town’s bars and most clubs remain shuttered, although two performance houses, the Crown & Anchor and Pilgrim House, have moved their cabarets outdoors. The downtown business district has been transformed into a mandatory mask zone, complete with “mask ambassadors” who provide free masks.  

Both nights, I attended the Crown & Anchor, first for the Judy and Varla show and the following night for Varla’s solo performance (the cheekily-named ‘Superspreader’). The poolside cabaret was at capacity, which meant that there were still empty seats. Rows of white chairs had been set up along the deck, with two empty chairs in each row separating groups. High-topped VIP tables for two flanked the pool. The performers were separated from the first row by a distance of 25 feet and from the accompanist by 10 feet, although Gold did get close enough to snatch the wig from Varla’s head. And in true comedic style, Corona, quarantine, and masks were all at the heart of the night’s humor, complete with Lysol cans and hazmat suits. 

Gold is one of the fortunate few. She has two shows each week in front of a live audience, something most comics in the age of Covid-19 can only dream of. It doesn’t hurt that her venue is Provincetown, a Shangri-La for queer folks with a congenial atmosphere and dune-crested beaches. As the comedian tells GO, “I feel like the luckiest person in the world.”   

This summer, much of Provincetown feels the same way. After a slow start to the season, the statewide reopening has gradually brought tourists back to the town, making the latter days of summer seem almost normal. The crowds are back. Rainbow banners flutter like prayer flags. Lines gather outside Lewis Brothers Ice Cream and the Lobster Pot, with customers maintaining six feet of distance. 

But it’s also clear when coming out of the Crown & Anchor onto an empty Commercial Street at a modest 10 p.m. that this summer in Provincetown, things just aren’t the same. 

“I’m going to survive this year — survive is the keyword — with hopes that next year is going to be better.”

The show almost didn’t go on in Provincetown this year. On Memorial Day — aka Single Women’s Weekend and the official start of the summer season — Massachusetts was in the middle of its phase one reopening, limiting services for much of the town’s shops and restaurants to curbside pick up and take out. Dining in, retail, and lodgings wouldn’t open until June 22nd, a full month into the season. Theme weeks, which draw hoards of LGBTQ+ to the town throughout the year, were postponed until 2021. 

Kim Leonard, owner of The Nut House sweet shop, stood outside of her store on Memorial Day and took a photograph of something she hadn’t seen before: a near-empty Commercial Street on one of the town’s busiest holidays. “It was unbelievable,” she says. “You get goosebumps.” 

Tony Fuccillo, director of the Office of Tourism and a full-time Provincetown resident for the past 11 years, notes how in a normal year the town’s population of around 3,000 starts to increase in March and continues throughout the summer, peaking in July and August. This year, he tells GO, the population “didn’t swell as fast. It took a while to start building. It did, but it’s not like in previous years.” 

When I visited in August, well into the high season, things were back to normal — sort of. Shops have reopened at around 40 percent capacity, with most stores admitting no more than five people at a time, including employees. Restaurants have been creative in transforming their parking lots into impromptu dining rooms or by building outdoor patios onto adjacent beaches. Some stalwarts have opted to remain closed; the Post Office Cafe and Cabaret closed its doors for the first summer in 45 years

Between the state-mandated closures and the reduced number of tourists due to both the loss of theme weeks and Covid fears, business owners are making up for lost revenue as best they can. Tim Varry, owner of Tim’s Used Books a Provincetown fixture since opening in 1994 — has attracted a steady crowd of regulars along with new faces since reopening in mid-June. “My theory is that, because everyone was cooped up for so long, they just want to be out in the world,” he tells GO, “and when they see a used bookstore and an open sign, it’s like catnip.”

At The Blue Monkey, a European-style bistro that has opened for its first summer, plastic dividers section off tables and a counter-to-ceiling plastic curtain shields employees behind the sweets counter. Owners Jorge Rodriguez and Juergen Zimmermann have also taken the added precaution of using only disposable, compostable dishes — not mandatory in Massachusetts, but a little extra assurance to their customers. 

“Considering everything that’s been going on, we’ve been okay, especially on the weekends,” Zimmerman says. Since this year’s season got off to a late start, he’s also hopeful that in September and even October “they’ll still be reasonable business so that we can put money aside for rent and in the winter.”

With lean winter months, locals depend on the money generated from the summer, early spring, and autumn months to keep them going year-round. Tourism generates roughly $200-250 million in revenue each year. Closing for the season isn’t a realistic option for many small business owners, and low tourist numbers in the busy months could also spell disaster. 

Ann MacDougall, owner of the Rose and Crown guesthouse, has had to close off four of her eight rooms — all with shared bathrooms — in keeping with the guidelines established by the state for safely reopening. Her other rooms are open, but she’s renting only to guests who’ve stayed before and who she trusts to be compliant with safety protocols. 

“I’m going to survive this year — survive is the keyword — with hopes that next year is going to be better,” she tells GO. “I couldn’t do this for three, four, or five years in a row. I don’t know what would happen.” 

Elizabeth Brooke, who runs Gabriel’s hotel, initially saw about 70 percent of a full summer’s bookings canceled. By dropping the minimum stay requirement from one week to four nights and then again down to one night, she’s been able to recover with the help of spontaneous bookings. Still, by the beginning of July, the guesthouse saw bookings down about 60 percent. “We’re trying our best just to recoup what we can,” Brooke says.

Despite the drop in business, Brooke does have reason to be optimistic. About 30 percent of her guests who book for one night end up extending to two once they see that the guesthouse, and the town, are safe. She’s also noticed a new crop of visitors who might not have had the chance to visit during a regular summer. “I think new people are discovering Provincetown because they can come for one night, where they might not have been able to afford a week or four nights before,” she says. “So that’s a good thing we can look at; that’s a highlight.”

Another positive to come from this: a sense of community, bonded together by the difficulty each person is facing. Since Gabriel’s is no longer allowed to serve breakfasts as part of the reopening guidelines, Brooke gives guests breakfast vouchers for harborfront restaurant the Coffee Pot, helping to spread the revenue to other local businesses. 

MacDougall has also noticed that locals are willing to extend a helping hand to those in need; even something as simple as a free cup of coffee or a meal “on the house” makes a difference. “It’s almost taking us back to a time when people really cared about each other,” she says. “So if that’s the goodness that’s come out of this, I’m okay with it.”

Old Problems And New Faces 

Community, kindness, and neighborliness are traits that come to mind when you think of Provincetown. You’ll hear locals refer to it as being at “the end of the world” — a phrase that not only describes its almost ethereal position on the dune-speckled end of Cape Cod but also its symbolic position at the end of social norms constricting life beyond the town limits. It’s a place that has nursed the dying through the AIDS crisis, where the rejected came to find not just a safe space, but a place where they could belong and be loved. 

The vision is somewhat oversimplified, especially for those of us on the outside who see Provincetown as a queer paradise, a place to idle away a lazy summer week or maybe just a weekend. And while yes, Provincetown is special (you’ll find few who’ve been there counter that position), it’s subject to the same divisions you’ll find in other parts of the country where people are trying to balance safety with financial viability. 

In May, the Boston Globe reported that the average age of Provincetown residents was 60, and that many suffer from underlying health conditions. Additionally, the Globe reports that Provincetown has the highest rate of HIV infection per capita in the state. The current pandemic not only evokes the specter of the AIDS crisis, it poses a serious threat to those who are HIV-positive. 

Diane Carbo, who worked as the town’s nurse during the AIDS crisis, has noticed unsettling parallels between the two crises. “Nobody wanted to help people with AIDS; everybody was petrified of them,” she tells GO. “It reminded me a lot of those poor old people with Covid in the convalescent homes. Nobody would go see them. They died alone.”

Carbo and her wife, Valerie Carrano, came to Provincetown in the early 1980s. They opened their own restaurant but gave up the business to work for the town’s health department as more of their friends and neighbors were diagnosed with HIV. They now own Ravenwood apartments, which they are operating this summer under the state-mandated guidelines. 

“If you’ve been coming for a long time, you know about the community,” Carbo says. “It’s a very strong, caring community — very strong.”

As COVID cases go, Provincetown has been mostly spared. At the end of July, the state reported just 27 total cases in the town, with only one new case reported in the past 14 days. 

Another noticeable change to Provincetown this summer are the tourists themselves. With interstate travel restricted, the town is experiencing more of what Tony Fuccillo, of the tourism office, calls a “drive market:”  visitors from New England and other nearby states like New York and New Jersey whose residents can travel to Massachusetts without restriction. There’s also been an increase in day-trippers, who drive in from other parts of the Cape or who catch the fast ferry from Boston.  

“The entertainment scene is different, so there’s a different vibe in town,” says Fuccillo.“I feel like it’s a lot like many decades ago, before we had all the theme weeks.”

You won’t see performers and queens in full drag hawking their shows along Commercial Street, nor are there the usual crowds spilling out from jam-packed cabarets at all hours of the night. Instead, everything shuts down by 11 p.m. 

For Gold, who has lived part-time in Provincetown since 1994, even having a stage to perform on wasn’t guaranteed until the last minute. The comic had been originally slated to perform with Merman at the Art House, a Crown & Anchor rival. Then, she tells me, the show was off — then on again, then off. Eventually, Art House producer Mark Cartole combined forces with Crown general manager, Rick Murray, to jointly present the poolside cabaret. 

“Every few days we didn’t know what was going on,” Gold says. “It was really by the seat of our pants.”

She notices that there’s a lot missing from Provincetown this summer. “The magic of walking down the street, the drag queens barking out their shows, the musicians — there’s so much that’s not here,” she says, reminding me of all the people I hadn’t seen. “It’s sort of a heavy place, an emptiness.”

And then, after a beat, she adds, “Don’t you think we’re keeping up a good face?” 

The town is keeping up a good face, despite the new faces and fewer crowds, the masks and the restrictions. This summer is about adapting to whatever happens in the hopes that next year will be better. Already, many regulars have shifted this year’s reservation to next and venues are advertising their 2021 lineups. There’s even talk that Women’s Week in October will go on, if in a modified, virtual format. 

But for now, the mask stays on in the hopes that it soon won’t be needed.  


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