COME JUNE, Candace Bowen and her husband, John, will drive from northern Ohio to Eastham, to vacation in a rental house they rolled over from their canceled 2020 summer trip. They’ll spend the next three weeks photographing sunsets at Rock Harbor, sitting on First Encounter Beach, grabbing a bite at Arnold’s Lobster & Clam Bar, biking, doing jigsaw puzzles, hanging out with the kids and grandkids, and making their grown daughter listen one more time to that story about trying to eat Cape Cod sand when she was a child. After a year off, Bowen, a journalism professor at Kent State University, can’t wait to get back to the Cape and all the love and easy routine it symbolizes for three generations of her family.
“Lots of good memories,” Bowen says about the Cape summers they’ve enjoyed in the last 20 years. “Even if Corey has to hear about eating sand, that’s fine. . . . We all missed it a great deal.”
Like many other Cape visitors, Bowen is anxious to get back to a “normal” summer. And she might get pretty close — if you imagine normal as a sliding scale rather than an absolute. Although they are still navigating COVID-19 restrictions and staffing challenges, businesses and organizations say they learned last summer how to keep people entertained and safe. Some pandemic protocols worked so well, in fact, that they might actually become the new normal. Mashpee Commons, for example, is bringing back its pop-up drive-in, opening July 1 with the original Ghostbusters.
The Cape’s welcome, however, is tempered by this advice: Plan ahead, obey the rules, and pack some patience along with the sunscreen.
“I think you’re going to see a far more normal pattern of things to do, except because of the demand, there may be longer lines,” says Wendy Northcross, chief executive of the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce. “Be a little more patient. Make sure you have reservations.”
And, please, this is a summer to be extra kind to workers, business owners say. Staff have heard enough lectures on personal freedom; just follow the rules and wear your mask.
“I think people just have to understand that the culture here on the Cape will be one of high compliance with masking and safety protocols,” Northcross says. “Even if you come from a state that’s got a different rule, people should make sure they check the protocols before they arrive.”
So, if, like Bowen, you’re headed to the Cape, what will this summer’s normal be like?
For starters, it will be very, very busy.
Real estate sales shot up last year, meaning there are more people living on the Cape full or part time. Short-term rentals are also now through the roof, so to speak. Bookings are up 73 percent over the past three years, says Jim Reese, chief operating officer of WeNeedaVacation.com, which has about 3,500 short-term listings on the Cape and Islands. The Chatham Bars Inn expects to have its best year in its more-than-100-year history, according to Gary Thulander, managing director of the luxury resort. Meanwhile, the Cape’s Chamber of Commerce booking site had a 70 percent increase in March 2021 over last year.
That means it may be harder to book a last-minute getaway — long a staple of the Cape’s summer business, Northcross says. Not only are hotels busy, but they may have fewer rooms available because of cleaning protocols, such as keeping rooms empty for 24 hours between guests, says Deb Catania, whose family owns the Cape Codder Resort & Spa in Hyannis, the Dan’l Webster Inn & Spa in Sandwich, and the Hearth ‘n Kettle restaurants in Hyannis and South Yarmouth. The Cape Codder has 260 rooms but as of late April was only using 225 to allow for deep cleaning. People also are booking longer stays, says Carol Watson, co-owner with her husband, Jeff, of the Captain Farris House in South Yarmouth, a 10-room bed-and-breakfast in a 1845 Greek Revival house. Her summer reservations are running four to seven days instead of the usual two or three.
The outlook for getting a restaurant table is a bit muddier. Towns have relaxed zoning restrictions on outdoor dining — policies expected to last throughout the summer even if COVID restrictions ease. And any restaurant that could has invested in heaters, patios, and other options to expand capacity. But COVID has further complicated the Cape’s staffing issues and so some places are waiting longer to open or to go all out.
Van Haidas, co-owner with his brother, Michael, of The Knack, an updated clam and burger spot in Orleans, had the perfect model for last summer since their restaurant is all window pick-up with patio seating. He kept the patio closed last summer, however, rather than policing it. For now he is open using the “coronavirus model” — only takeout — but hopes to reopen seating sometime in May or June. “As things get better and the vaccinations take a bigger hold... , then we are looking forward to opening it again,” he says.
Dine-in restaurants have had to be especially creative. Among other issues, COVID rules forbade customers from standing at the bar, eating and drinking while they waited for tables. And tables tended to turn over more slowly since people had no place to go, like the theater, says Peter Troutman, who with his brother, David, co-owns Scargo Cafe in Dennis. They relied on patio heaters and built seven mini-greenhouses that seat two, four, or six patrons, which are wildly popular. But the biggest challenge so far this year is the “out of control” staffing shortage, which affects how many people he can serve. He wonders if with so many home rentals, people will choose to cook rather than go out. “It’s going to be a good summer,” he says, “it’s just not going to be normal.”
Some of the Cape’s regional events, such as the Cape Cod Hydrangea Fest garden tours and workshops in July, can adjust easily to pandemic rules. But for the second year in a row, the Arts Foundation of Cape Cod has canceled its in-person Boston Pops concert in August that usually attracts 10,000 people to downtown Hyannis. As of late April, the state did not allow the crowds usually attracted by big parades, putting the kibosh on any large-scale Fourth of July marching and the Provincetown Carnival parade, which pulls in about 90,000 people. But the Falmouth Road Race hopes to have at least a limited field of runners chosen randomly from entries. And the Cape Cod Baseball League, which canceled its season last summer for the first time since World War II, will play ball starting June 12.
One big question is when restrictions will ease on entertainment and night life. The Cape’s regional and community theaters were hit hard last summer and, except for virtual events or the occasional one-person show, have been mostly dark since. But things are in the works, with theaters, as well as museums and concert venues, planning events at reduced capacity.
“We’re not planning on doing anything that will require 20 or 30 people rehearsing, things like that. But we are planning to be as open as the safety guidelines allow,” says David Kuehn, executive director of the Cotuit Center for the Arts, which has two indoor theaters as well as teaching and studio space on its 7½-acre campus. The center is holding in-person and virtual classes and is one of several theaters that have created or plan to build an outdoor stage. Cotuit also plans to host movie nights in partnership with the Woods Hole Film Festival.
Then, there’s night life. Again, the advantage has gone to those with outdoor space. Rick Murray, president of the company that owns Crown & Anchor inn and restaurant in Provincetown, built a waterfront theater on the complex’s pool deck last year where he ran three shows a night, seven nights a week, and sold out. He’ll bring that back this year, as well as open his restaurant and 18 guest rooms.
“I don’t foresee us being able to have 600 men dancing with their shirts off in the nightclub,” he says. “But what I’m anticipating is, after our shows are done at 10 o’clock, we would be able to show music videos out on the pool deck.”
As you make plans for this summer, remember that things are still in flux, as businesses and organizations wait on zoning, staff, COVID guidelines, and the elusive herd immunity. There will be plenty to do on the Cape that’s spontaneous, but if it’s a must, check before you go and book early. Here are some more highlights of what the 2021 summer will look like:
CAPE COD NATIONAL SEASHORE
The park ran into staffing difficulties last year when social distancing limited housing for lifeguards and other workers. It still attracted more than 4 million visitors, putting it in the top 10 of most visited national parks, according to Leslie Reynolds, deputy superintendent.
This year, the housing situation has eased and the park expects to guard all six of its beaches, charge for parking, and open concessions. Beach shuttles will run at 50 percent capacity. Visitor centers will be open on an “outdoor” basis, meaning there will be a ranger on duty, and bathrooms will be open. The park also hopes to hold summer programming, such as ranger talks. Reynolds recommends the new and free National Park Service app with information and calendars for the Seashore and other parks. It’s free and available in the App Store for iOS and on Google Play for Android devices.
Provincetown is sticking with its game plan from last summer, such as requiring masks in the busy sections of Commercial Street. And as part of the town’s effort to support drag performers hurt by the night-life shutdown, they’ll be among the roving street ambassadors reminding visitors to wear masks and social distance. Events and theme weeks such as Bear Week and Carnival aren’t canceled, but they will be different, says Bob Sanborn, executive director of the Provincetown Business Guild. “We will be doing whatever we can do that’s COVID compliant at the time,” he says, which might include smaller outdoor events or cabarets. The town also will host “Express Yourself Days,” which Sanborn says “means dressing up in a costume or wearing a Speedo or dressing in a harness or however they feel comfortable.” And, starting this summer, you can catch the new inclined elevator from Bradford Street up to the Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum, eliminating the long and winding walk. The single tram carries 18 passengers and takes about two minutes to climb 80 feet.
Provincetown and Barnstable whale-watch companies started trips in April, although for now boats are at 50 percent capacity, says Mel Marchand, marketing director of the Hyannis Whale Watcher, based in Barnstable Harbor. Her company’s reservations are on par with 2019, which was a “great” year, she says, and, even better, it looks like a good year for whales. “We have the boat marked out for social distancing,” says Marchand. “Inside we have tables for people to sit and eat . . . We’ve marked the rail so you know where 6 feet is. So we’ve done everything we can to make it very safe and easy for people to enjoy the trip.”
MAIN STREET HYANNIS
Last summer, Hyannis reduced Main Street to one lane and allowed retailers and restaurants to spill onto the sidewalk. That configuration will be back this year because the pedestrian atmosphere proved popular with businesses and visitors, says Elizabeth Wurfbain, executive director of the Hyannis Main Street Business Improvement District. “It really felt like a boardwalk,” she says. There will be activities nightly, including movies that have moved from last year’s pop-up drive-in to the town green on Tuesday nights. Watch for a singer-songwriter series and a jazz night, as well as monthly theme nights.
SAND SCULPTURE TRAIL
It is the 10th anniversary of the Yarmouth Sand Sculpture Trail — the largest sand sculpture trail in the country, according to Mary Vilbon, executive director of the Yarmouth Chamber of Commerce. Up to 30 businesses will sponsor sculptures that are way beyond sandcastles. Trail maps are available online and at the Yarmouth visitors center on Route 28 in West Yarmouth. “People really love that trail because it’s something they can do outdoors at their own leisure,” Vilbon says.
CAPE COD BASEBALL LEAGUE
The college league opens on June 20 but is waiting on state and local rules for social distancing at its 10 ball fields, which are all on public property and usually open to anyone with a lawn chair.
“We’re currently putting the procedures and protocols in place,” says Cape League commissioner Eric Zmuda. “If it remains as is for now, there’ll be the social distancing and the mask requirements and whatever percentage we’ll be allowed to have once we open the parks.”
Check these calendar websites to stay up to date on some of what’s happening on the Cape this summer:
> Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce: capecodchamber.org/events
> Arts Foundation of Cape Cod: artscapecod.org
> Hyannis Main Street Business Improvement District: hyannismainstreet.com
> Provincetown Office of Tourism: Ptowntourism.com
> Provincetown Business Guild: ptown.org
Susan Moeller is a frequent contributor to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
* This story has been updated to reflect a change in the start of the Cape League season.