When I glanced out the window of my restaurant one day not long ago, I saw a woman struggling to climb over the large table that was blocking access to our front doors. The table gave my staff a spot to drop off to-go food outside while keeping a wide berth from our customers. But it also served as a visual and psychological barricade: You, our guest, stay on one side while we, the restaurant workers, stay on the other, safely preparing your order.
So I stepped outside to ask our would-be patron, who was old enough to be my grandmother, if she might refrain from crawling over the table, which is surrounded by ropes and planters and signs and directional arrows and brightly colored buoys to reinforce our message. She looked at me, dumbfounded. “But then how …,” she stammered, “how am I supposed to get in?”
My partner, Loic, and I are the owners of the Canteen, a casual sandwich-and-lobster-roll restaurant in Provincetown, Massachusetts, a vacation destination at the very tip of Cape Cod. We are grateful for our customers—flattered, even, that a diner might want our food badly enough to scale furniture for it. But now that our first summer with the coronavirus is at hand, I’m terrified.
Known for its open-hearted embrace of outsiders and outcasts, especially the LGBTQ community, Provincetown isn’t the average beach destination. But in small tourist spots across the country—in Ocean City, Maryland; in Hilton Head, South Carolina; in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina; in Sausalito, California—business owners are all in the same bind as I am. While communities everywhere in the United States have struggled with whether and how to reopen, Memorial Day weekend is a deadline that seaside towns cannot ignore. When a crush of tourists arrive, what will we do?
On weekdays during the spring, almost all of our patrons have accommodated our efforts to keep them and us safe from a deadly virus. We’ve put up signs and painted X’s six feet apart on the ground to help people visualize the appropriate buffer zone. But come weekends, things get dicey. As lines grow, and waits get longer, not everyone listens when we ask them to socially distance.
Cooped up in large towns and cities, many people heading into their third month of quarantine have been trying to decide whether they should visit their favorite summer destinations this year. My answer is an unsatisfying maybe. Instinctively, we want them to come; in fact, our livelihoods depend on them coming. Businesses like mine are the backbone of the cities and towns where we operate. As we prepare for the summer rush, we are struggling to find the line between helping and hurting our community, and we wonder how we’ll know if we cross it. And we are basing decisions on our own hunches—with little official guidance from authorities from which we could use a lot more help.
Loic and I opened the Canteen seven years ago. During our first summer season, sales had been brisk enough that Loic and I worked 133 consecutive double shifts. By September, I had lost 15 pounds and developed shingles.
On the first busy day of our second year, our lunch rush had started as usual, but by 1 p.m., our tempo hadn’t slowed as usual. It had accelerated. Standing at the kitchen pass—the opening through which the other cooks and I pushed out orders to our servers—I could see a sea of faces stretching from our ordering counter to our front door. Within 20 minutes, the tide had flowed across the sidewalk and over the curb onto Commercial Street, the main thoroughfare of our town. That line was my first inkling that our year-old restaurant was no longer entirely our own. Regular visitors to Provincetown make their own mental map of places to go on a sunny afternoon, and people whom Loic and I hadn’t yet met were adding the Canteen to theirs.
As Loic glanced back at me with a what-have-we-done look in his eyes, our entrepreneurial instincts kicked in. We led our crew in meeting the demands of that day, and then we woke up every day that summer to do it again. We would make sure all our guests walked out the door with a mayo-smeared grin on their face, or we would die trying.
This year, after nearly 100,000 Americans have died of a respiratory virus spread through social contact, the moral calculation is harder. Provincetown has 3,000 year-round residents and a summer population often estimated at 10 times as much. The local health-care infrastructure is built more for the former than the latter. In the past few months, the debate about how to prepare for summer has been fierce.
Three schools of thoughts have emerged. First is the salvage-our-summer crowd, who are worried most about the economic viability of our town. They aren’t a monolithic group, nor are they MAGA-flag-waving protesters insisting that they have a right to a salon dye job or 18 holes of golf. Red hats are rare in Provincetown, where Hillary Clinton won 88 percent of the vote in 2016. The people pushing our town to reopen believe in science and know the virus is real. They include business owners who cannot survive without a year’s income and service workers who, in the best of times, live paycheck to paycheck. In summer towns, residents count on the income they make during the summer to pay their rent or mortgage for the entire year. Some of them are undocumented workers who can’t collect unemployment and aren’t receiving health-care benefits at all.
Second, there’s the shut-it-all-down contingent—those who have been calling for a complete ban on summer visitors this year. Many people in this camp are older or living with illnesses. Literally scared for their lives, they argue that making money this July and August will come at the cost of our community's health. And how many deaths are we willing to inflict to save our economy? Two? Twenty? Two hundred?
A third group—which includes me—hopes that, through the right set of rules and regulations, we can limit the spread of the virus while keeping our economy hobbling along.
In early March, Loic and I quickly made changes to our operation here at the Canteen to do what we thought at the time would keep our guests and our staff safe. We removed some of the tables to increase the space between diners. We took away all communal items, such as condiments and our fill-your-own-tap-water station. And we did our best to communicate what we were doing to keep people safe.
For a couple of weekends in March, pleasant weather brought unexpected crowds to town. Still, one of those Saturday mornings had been slow enough that Loic and I made a calculated decision: Our battled-hardened staff would be able to handle whatever came their way that afternoon. We left the restaurant to celebrate my mother’s birthday sitting in socially distanced lawn chairs in my parents’ garage 45 minutes away.
We returned later that night to an exhausted and shaken crew. In practice, the safety protocols we had agonized over had been hard for our team to enforce. While we had been away, the dining room filled with day-trippers, who crammed around our spaced-out tables. Our servers reported that, when they tried to deliver food from a safe distance, some customers had gotten in their faces. I feared that I had miscalculated gravely—and endangered my team—by stepping out for several hours.
What hadn’t occurred to me, while we were redesigning our space and our process for handling orders, was that a small fraction of customers would object. The precautions that keep customers safe also inconvenience them. Getting everyone enough ketchup takes longer. We assumed that customers would understand, but, at least on that afternoon in March, not everyone did.
The next day, Loic and I arose after a sleepless night to plot the future of our restaurant, determined never to repeat what had just happened. We made the gut-wrenching decision to convert the Canteen to takeout and delivery only. We would remove menu items, such as lobster rolls, geared mostly to the weekend crowds and instead push the grilled-cheese sandwiches and vegan grain bowls more popular with townies. We would keep our doors locked so that only our staff could enter our building. (In the end, we wouldn’t have had much choice. That same evening, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker ordered restaurant dining rooms closed.) The next day, Loic took a hammer to a pane of glass in the front of our building and replaced it with a makeshift takeout window.
Later that week, we set up a grocery store in what used to be our dining room, and allowed people to order those items online for delivery or curbside pickup. And we started offering free fruits and vegetables, cleaning supplies, and pantry staples to members of our community in need.
Still, the limits of our power are all too obvious. After ordering food and eating it off premise, people have been leaving used cups, forks, and spoons on our grounds rather than throwing them away at home—forcing us to handle items that have been in people’s mouths. Once, when one guest waiting for her takeout order asked another to move a little so that everyone could stand at an appropriate distance, the guest in the middle of it all simply said “no,” and stayed put. Hire a bouncer, someone on Facebook chided me later. But margins in our industry are thin, especially now. And when a casual restaurant can’t sell sandwiches without protection from hired muscle, the real problem lies elsewhere.
Often, when things have been at their worst here, our town’s police officers have walked by, seen what’s happening, and said and done nothing. On paper, of course, this doesn’t make any sense. How can we expect to run a business while also being the sole enforcers of measures meant to keep society safe? But then again, in light of the U.S. government’s paralysis amid this crisis, my team’s current dilemma makes all the sense in the world.
Nothing I’ve said offers a clear answer to those of you sitting on the other side of the equation. People all over the country are in good faith trying to figure out what to do this summer, and if they can still make their pilgrimages without harming their favorite summer communities. And I believe it comes from a place of love: Who wouldn’t want to enjoy at least a version of their usual summer routine this year while also infusing cash into our sputtering seasonal economies?
My staff and I have already agreed to hold up our end of the bargain: We’ll make the best chicken-salad sandwiches we can while taking measures to keep ourselves and our guests as safe as possible. Will our guests now hold up their end? Will they stand six feet apart and dispose of their plates and cups safely? Will they understand that, for this summer to work out well for anyone, we all need to be a bit more accommodating and understanding than usual?
I’ve received dozens of messages via email, Facebook, and Instagram from people I don’t know, asking what to do. “My husband and I are usually out there for 6-10 weeks each summer,” someone wrote earlier this month. “We’re curious how you plan on serving customers. Online then pick up, outside orders? Do you think the back patio will be safe?” I’ve avoided responding to these inquiries, because I’ve had no certainty to offer.
I run a restaurant in a seaside town. I’m not an epidemiologist or a fortune-teller. But as I’m forced to make what could be life-and-death decisions—with little official support or guidance—I’m left no choice but to pretend I am.
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