This harrowing summer, Provincetown became even more special for me. Back on July 11, I left my Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood and Manhattan for the first time since the pandemic hit to venture to one of my favorite spots on earth. If you think New York knew how to handle the Coronavirus, Ptown showed an even better, more effective way to fight back.
I loved the signs on Commercial Street that read “Entering a Mask Mandated Zone.” What a joy to see everybody, including the police, obeying that edict. (The vast majority of cops in NYC don’t wear masks.) Even runners and cyclists in Ptown put on masks (they don’t in Central Park). I appreciate the way the always-busy Joe Coffee has tables set up as a way to direct the flow of customer traffic and allows “only one party” into the shop at a time. You pick up your order outside at another window. Even safer, the deli Relish accepts online orders only. Everything is pick-up.
My first visit to Provincetown, Mass., was in 1964. My family of five also looped around to see the World’s Fair in New York City that year. Since then, I’ve taken dozens of mini-vacations to the tip of Massachusetts, typically riding on Amtrak to the fast ferries in Boston at Bay State Cruise Company, which is slated to run its “summer” schedule until October 12th. This year, I’m very virus wary and avoid all public transportation. It was back on February 1 that I flew from Seoul, South Korea, to JFK, and after seeing how one country took quick action to handle the health crisis, I’ve continued to be beyond dismayed by good old American incompetence under Trump’s total lack of leadership. I continue to operate with real Korean caution.
The result: I rented a car to make the trip to Ptown. Horrors, the long carbon “roadprint”! I haven’t run my AC all summer to make up for that environmental mortal sin. More paranoid, I took my own towels and pillow and enough Microban and Purell to sanitize the entire Ptown motel, much less my room. I also thought I’d eschew the daily maid service, but, once in my room, I couldn’t find the “Privacy Please” sign to hang on the door. It was a pleasant surprise to learn that the state of Massachusetts mandates no daily maid service in hotels.
Local business owners I spoke to in Ptown say tourism is down about fifty percent. Of course, no one from Canada, Europe or Asia is making the trip to virus-saturated America. This also translates to far fewer, if any, workers from Eastern Europe and the Caribbean, and several stores display “Help Wanted” signs. Only the “Black Lives Matter” signs are more ubiquitous. Over the past few months, I’ve walked a lot in Manhattan, and tiny Ptown sports ten times the number of “BLM” signs than my hometown. It’s just another reason to adore Provincetown, especially during its summer season and now as it enters its Halloween and holiday ones.
Several empty shops have “For Rent” signs, but nothing on the scale of, let’s say, Christopher and Bleecker Streets in the West Village even before the pandemic, where it seemed half the stores were vacant. In Ptown, next to the popular Joe Coffee, the clothing store is now empty. But in its basement, the cannibis dispensary CuraLeaf has a long line (everyone spaced at least six feet) to its below-the-ground entrance.
Even before the pandemic, I was not a restaurant habitué . I find it too expensive. My last restaurant-bought meal was at Joe Allen before an early February 2020 performance of the new musical Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, hands-down the worst show of this curtailed theater year. More recently, the outdoor in-the-street dining along Ninth Avenue in Hell’s Kitchen freaks me out. I even grocery shop at seven in the morning (the senior-citizens hour) to avoid crowds. In other words, dining out in Ptown is an adventure for pandemic paranoids like me. I like that every outdoor restaurant there requires you to leave your first name and phone number. A few of them on the bayside of Commercial Street have been able to expand their outdoor dining to include the beach, which is a genuine treat.
What I did not dare was in-restaurant dining. Popular spots like the Lobster Pot and Café Heaven operate at fifty percent capacity, with partitions placed between the spaced tables. Needless to say, I did not eat at Lobster Pot or Café Heaven. Having a car, however, did bring about one blessing. I expanded my repertory of restaurants to include Mac’s Fish House way out on Shank Painter Road. Delicious halibut, lobster and seared scallops. Never again will I dine at Lobster Pot.
Due to the help shortage, many establishments are operating at reduced hours, often skipping a day or two during the middle of the week. The whale-watching boats continue to operate, as does the Long Point Shuttle that takes you to the Long Point Lighthouse, although in both cases the scheduling is a little more erratic than usual. I spend my vacations picking up plastic on Long Point Beach and hauling it back on the Shuttle. I used to carry it back to town over the mile-long breakwater between Wood End Lighthouse and the Provincetown Inn. At age 70, I can still walk the breakwater boulders but not with 30 pounds of garbage.
Virus-wise, the Long Point Shuttle could not be more cautious. Mind you, it is a pontoon boat with a canopy. Even so, they kindly shoot your hands with sanitizer before boarding. There were only two of us making the trip, but they insisted we sit in “row two on the left, please, because I haven’t disinfected some of the other seats yet.” And your $20 bill goes into a box, untouched by the captain.
I took the first boat over at 9 am. The entire beach was mine. Two hours later, there were maybe a half dozen other tourists. Herring Cove and Race Point Beaches were only slightly more populated. Even so, people tend to wear masks, or, at least, put them on when they pass you … twenty feet away.
I’ve never had to deal with car parking in Ptown. In that regard, the closing of the Provincetown Museum is a boon. Its parking lot in front of the Pilgrim Monument can now be used free of charge. But it’s still $20 at the more conveniently located Wharf. Speaking of that 252-plus-foot tower, built in 1910 to commemorate the signing of the Mayflower Compact in 1620, Provincetown this year is celebrating its 400th anniversary. Tourism goes on despite the virus. The city is in the process of constructing a funicular (they’re calling it an “inclined elevator”) from Bradford Street up the hill to the Pilgrim Monument and Museum. Fine, but I already miss some of the toppled oaks and maples.
For the first time in years, I stood in front of the Pilgrim Mural on Bradford Street to read the historic Mayflower Compact. What a difference a year, not to mention 400 years, makes. The Compact’s fealty to England, the king, and Christianity is enough to send any liberal hurling into the nearest trash bin.
Since the late 1960s peace marches, I’ve participated in every left-leaning protest there is. This year has been different, unfortunately. I’ve had to pass on all the police-brutality marches. And so it was on Friday in Ptown that I had to abandon Commercial Street for Bradford Street. While tourism is down, the former street was awash with too many people (all wearing masks) on Friday, my last full day of vacation.
I picked up a pie at Spiritus Pizza and rode by the Boatslip. I’d heard rumors that gay life here over the Fourth of July was on an irresponsible par with Fire Island Pines. At 6 p.m., the Tea Dance at the Boatslip looked relatively male-free.
I returned to New York on Saturday. While the trip north on Monday had been traffic free, Saturday proved a headache, taking an hour longer. I’ve never appreciated Amtrak and the Fast Ferries more. Can’t wait for next summer when I am hopeful that I can travel more hassle-free and environment-friendly.
Robert Hofler is the lead theater critic for TheWrap. His books include “The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson” and “Money, Murder, and Dominick Dunne.”