A Year Of Covid Has Taken Its Toll On Provincetown, But The Beloved Gay Mecca Carries On

Although the future will likely come with social distancing restrictions, it’s good to know that the pandemic hasn’t completely robbed us of these beloved spaces. 

The For Sale sign hung sadly on the door of the once vibrant Post Office Cabaret on Provincetown’s Commercial Street. I was in town last January, and though upset, I wasn’t surprised by the closures everywhere. I’d read online that the popular cabaret, which had closed for the summer of 2020, was now on the market. Still, seeing the sign in person was something of a shock. The Post Office had been one of the grand dames of Provincetown’s entertainment scene, jammed for summer brunches and nightly drag shows. I’d seen Suzanne Westenhoeffer perform there just a few Memorial Days ago. Most times when I was in Provincetown, the place was so packed I didn’t even try getting inside. 

I counted seven shuttered and for sale shop fronts as I walked along Commercial Street, including the popular Portuguese Bakery, which according to their website has been open since around 1900 (the lease sign on the bakery’s window had set off a firestorm of worried comments on Facebook). Other businesses which normally remain open year-round, like the Mews Restaurant and Cafe, the 1620 Brewhouse, and Napi’s Restaurant, have closed for the winter due to the economic stress caused by the pandemic

It’s no surprise that owners would decide to sell, or seek early retirement, following the lean summer of the pandemic shutdown. Across the country, businesses have been hard hit by Covid. According to the Yelp Economic Impact Report from September of last year, nearly 100,000 across the United States had closed permanently since the start of the pandemic. Restaurants and retail are among the sectors hardest hit, with over 19,500 and 17,000 permanent closures respectively.   

For Provincetown, a gay mecca on the northern tip of Cape Cod and a thriving summer town, the 2020 season had been truncated by the Massachusetts state-mandated shutdown. Retail shops and restaurant services other than takeout didn’t begin until June, nearly a month after Memorial Day — the usual kick-off to the season which often corresponds with the popular Single Women’s Weekend. Theme weeks, which draw thousands to the small town each year, had been postponed until 2021, the vibrant night scene had been reduced to two outdoor cabarets, and the whole town shut down by about 10 p.m. 

Before my disheartening visit in January, I’d come to Provincetown in late August of 2020, when things had gotten back to a kind of normal. Sure, the crowds were straighter, thanks to the loss of theme weeks and an influx in day-trippers, but visitors were pouring back in, and most business owners I spoke with were hopeful that they would salvage enough of the season to get by until next year.  

But summer came to pass, and the news of the winter closures had me wondering: for those businesses that had survived the pandemic, what does the future look like? 

“2020 was a challenging year for everybody. I think that we did better than we expected back in March, April, May,” says Radu Luca, the executive director for the Provincetown Chamber of Commerce. “I think that the season was okay, all things considered.”  

Luca estimates that the town’s businesses were down anywhere between 25-75% from the annual average, depending on their sector. Retail shops and restaurants, which could recover operating costs as restrictions were gradually lifted — often by finding creative and innovative ways to expand services like outdoor dining — were more likely to take less of a financial hit than tour organizers, who had to operate under stricter guidelines or suspend services completely. However, being able to stay afloat financially is not the same as prospering. 

“I told a lot of business owners that if at the end of the year you broke even, you paid off your bills, you paid off your mortgage and all that, that’s a win,” he tells GO.  

For Elizabeth Lovati, who owns Liz’s Cafe and Anybody’s Bar, business has been steady this past year although she tells GO the increased operating costs resulting from Covid precautions have meant that an increase in sales doesn’t transfer to her bottom line. In addition to buying hand sanitizers, protective gear for staff, and igloo bubbles for outdoor winter dining, Lovati has also had to hire a contract tracer, and install a phone line to handle to-go orders. 

 

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“But we’re open and we’re grateful and I have employees that I haven’t had to lay off and everyone’s making a living and I can pay my bills,” she says.

Lovati also runs a speciality store in the town’s east end, Angel Foods, which, she says, has been noticeably busier thanks to year-round residents and seasonal guests — many who’ve relocated to Provincetown for the duration of the pandemic — throwing their support behind local businesses. 

“We have a great community. They shop local, they support us,” she says. “When people have a bag full of delightful things and it’s, like, $85, I always say, ‘Thank you so much, I really appreciate you supporting a small business. You probably would have spent $70 at Stop & Shop,’ and they all say, ‘Who wants to go to Stop & Shop? We want you to be here next year.’”   

For galleries and retail shops that aren’t considered essential services, the June reopening cost shop owners the first two months or more of their earning potential. However, Lydia Hamnquist, now in her 40th year at Global Gifts, says that the return of visitors in July and August helped make up for lost earnings. While business wasn’t quite the same, it was “better than I thought it was going to be,” she tells GO. “There were a lot of people in town this summer. Lots of people came in.”  

Francesca Cerutti and Sid Bolduc, the owners of Cape Tile Art and the Cid Bolduc Gallery, also did better than expected based on Cerutti’s projections from the spring. “When we first opened, June was so dead. It really kind of spooked me for the season,” she tells GO. “Once you get your head around, ‘Okay, I’m never going to make that up,’ you think, ‘What can I try to do to make some money for the rest of the season?”

While not all businesses were able to recover costs after reopening, the return visitors, as well as a 50% increase in online sales, provided Cape Tile Art with a much needed boost for the remainder of the season. Business in 2020 was down only 26% from the yearly average, Cerutti says, and down only 10% from day-to-day. 

However, their gallery had “Zero business, basically,” Bolduc says.  The loss of gallery openings, and the Friday night Gallery Stroll — a weekly collaboration of gallery openings designed to attract foot traffic — left many without their usual source of revenue. And while the gallery stroll did happen virtually last year, Bolduc says that overall, “The virus crippled the gallery business, absolutely crippled it.” 

Business was also down significantly at the Bakker Gallery, according to managing director Spencer Keasey, although it was also up at Bakker Auctions, which Keasey also manages. Without the auction business, “The gallery would survive, but it would be bare bones,” he tells GO. “We’d just be barely paying our salaries and covering the rent.”  

 

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No doubt the year has been rough for many in town, of which the increase in properties for sale is perhaps the most visible sign. Robert Sanborn, Executive Director of the Provincetown Business Guild, told the Cape Cod Times that the number of sales may indicate that turnover is “probably greater than a normal year.” 

Phil Franchini, the Chairmen of the Board of Directors for the Soup Kitchen in Provincetown (SKIP), tells GO that is a normal year, the kitchen supplies about 100 meals per day during the off season. This year, they’re averaging 165 meals per day, a jump in 65%. “Every day at 12:30, there’s a line of cars wrapping around the back of the building,” he says, “and we give out whatever we have.” 

Those who’ve weathered the previous year now wonder if next year will be any different. In early March, the town’s Board of Health and Board of Selectmen updated last year’s joint emergency rule, which for now keeps in place many of last year’s restrictions. The Crown & Anchor and Pilgrim House — the only cabarets that operated last year by converting to outdoor venues — are again scheduling performances outdoors for this year, too. 

For Lynette Molnar, the owner and founder of Girl Power Productions and the force behind women’s events Girl Splash, Single Women’s Weekend, and Women’s Week, the cancellation of theme weeks last year meant that she hasn’t received an income since October 2019. Although theme weeks are tentatively scheduled to go forward this year, whether they will happen depends on the efficiency of the vaccine roll-out, and what the town authorizes is safe with public events. Already this year, Leather Weekend — scheduled for late February — had to be cancelled. 

“Everything just feels like it changes every few weeks,” Molnar tells GO. “I would like to be really positive right now but if I’m going to be honest I felt much more hopeful two months ago than I do right now.”

Since January, when I spoke with Molnar, the Biden administration has amped up delivery of the Covid vaccinations, and is now predicting that the U.S. will have enough vaccinations for all adults by May. However, even with increased rates of vaccination, Provincetown tends to err on the side of caution regarding re-openings. The updated guidelines re-issued from last summer state that the town tends to be “more stringent” than other parts of Massachusetts due to the drastic increase of population during the summer months, when the town of 3,000 residents can jump to 35,000-40,000 on any given day. The precautions are also taken to protect the town’s immuno-compromised residents, who are more at risk for Covid than the general population. 

While it’s likely that Provincetown will start to see a return to something resembling normal this summer, a full return to the pre-2020 season likely won’t happen until 2022 at the earliest.   

Luca, of the Chamber of Commerce, anticipates a more gradual return to normal, even with a vaccine available to the general public, although he remains cautiously optimistic about this year’s prospects. He praises how business owners often found creative and innovative ways to remain open in 2020, and how the town is able to coordinate on a consistent and unified message for reopening. 

“We’ll just keep on doing what we do,” he says. “Whenever we need to shift we can pivot very quickly.”

For now, many Provincetown business owners like Molnar remain determined to hold out, waiting to see what this year brings. 

“I hope that we can get back to something that resembles what we’ve done in the past,” she says. “I don’t know that it’s going to be next spring or summer. It may be next fall for Women’s Week, but I’m trying to hold space for it.”  

There are reasons to be optimistic. Since my visit in January, it’s been announced that both Post Office Cabaret and Portuguese Bakery, which have both sold, will reopen as is under new ownership. Although the future will likely come with social distancing restrictions, it’s good to know that the pandemic hasn’t completely robbed us of these beloved spaces. 

Hopefully, the same can be said of other spaces special to our queer communities once this year — and, hopefully, the pandemic — is over. Provincetown has been for many of us LGBTQ+ people a special, or even sacred, place. We come for fun, to be ourselves. It remains, for now, one of the few places where we can surround ourselves by other queer folk. It’s still here for us and hopefully, too, will continue to be for a long time to come. 


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