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At summer hot spots like Cape Cod in Massachusetts, the coronavirus pandemic is changing the vacation experience but not ending it.
Boston-area resident Luciano Leone scrambled this spring to find a rental property on the Cape so his family could get away for a bit. It may mean being more of a homebody than usual while away. But he’s not the only one planning what amounts to a “rental staycation” this year. One result: Even as rental properties fill up, beaches are less crowded than usual.
“I think there’s going to be some market that says, ‘yep, this is a new experience for me and I kind of like it, so I might continue to vacation in this way in the future,’” says Lori Pennington-Gray, a tourism expert at the University of Florida.
The upheaval for this summer is tough on tourist-oriented businesses. In Orleans, near the Cape’s elbow, bowling alley owner Dave Currier has no idea when he’ll be able to reopen. But he refuses to consider the threat of closing. “I’m not going to think like that,” he says. “We’re going to make it.”
On a normal summer day, a steady line of cars would lead to the small parking lot beneath the lighthouse in Chatham. But this summer, empty parking spots are as ubiquitous as masked beachgoers. Across from a menacing-looking sign warning swimmers about the great white sharks that frequent these waters is another stern reminder: Stay at least 6 feet apart.
This summer, beachgoers may harbor fears of sharks in the water and the coronavirus on the beach, but they’re still flocking to Cape Cod, eager to trade in their at-home isolation for the sun and the sand. Fretful about interacting in public places like hotel lobbies, many vacationers are looking for self-contained vacations and turning to rental homes.
Often they are staying within 300 miles of their own homes. And, with many summer camps closed or offering limited service, parents and children are packing their computers and heading to the beach for a longer, isolated “staycation” away from home. All this is changing the life and economy of vacation-oriented places like Cape Cod for this summer – and possibly for longer.
“I think there’s going to be some market that says, ‘yep, this is a new experience for me and I kind of like it, so I might continue to vacation in this way in the future,’” says Lori Pennington-Gray, professor and director of the Tourism Crisis Management Initiative at the University of Florida. This may mean more people will engage in the rental market in the future, she adds.
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Luciano Leone, from the town of Middleton north of Boston, could have given up on his family’s plans for a Cape Cod vacation.
That’s what some other people were doing early this spring, when the coronavirus emerged. And the owner of one Cape Cod house canceled Mr. Leone's booking, while yet another told him the house wouldn’t be available for rent this summer.
The third time proved the charm, however. After scouring websites, he was able to book a rental.
The Leone family has driven to the Cape and back in a day before, but “cars get a little cozy with two kids.” So, Mr. Leone and his family laid plans to stay for a week. The goal is to enjoy activities but in more of a homebody way than usual – dining takeout and visiting beaches that, thanks to this year’s “staycation” mindset, are less crowded.
Timothy Davis owns a rental house in Chatham, and he is more than happy that renters are trending toward longer stays. “Anybody in their right mind would like a renter for a month or two because you can get basically the same money.”
In other words, longer periods of stay mean fewer turnovers, which have become more costly and a logistical obstacle during the pandemic because of the need for deeper cleaning.
Despite concerns over the virus this summer, business for rental owners nationwide is up – not down – including in coastal areas like Cape Cod, says Dr. Pennington-Gray.
“We saw a large uptick in rentals during the spring,” says Jim Reese, chief operating officer of Weneedavacation.com, which helps homeowners on Cape Cod market their homes to renters. June was “the busiest month that we’ve ever had on our site.”
For some property owners on the Cape, this year’s trend is sort of back to the future. Portia Knight Calouro recalls how, years ago, vacationers would come to the Cape for anywhere from a month to the whole summer. But in her own business in recent years, the majority of her renters have come for just one week. Now, for this summer at least, her renters are for two weeks or more.
Not everyone is renting a home, or staying a long time. Manny Santos drove to Cape Cod with his wife and daughter, from east Providence, Rhode Island, only a few hours away.
The family is enjoying the beach and other activities as they normally would, although they are ordering food to-go more than eating in restaurants. “There’s not a lot of people here,” he says, gesturing to the beach behind him, “so you can get away with that.”
Although longer rentals are a trend in places like Cape Cod, the national average for vacation stays nationwide remains between four and seven days, according to data tracked by the Tourism Crisis Management Initiative in Florida.
And, even as vacation rentals thrive, small businesses face a different set of challenges. “The small businesses that kind of make their living from tourists are really hard hit, particularly if they operate from an indoor perspective,” says Dr. Pennington-Gray.
Prior to the pandemic, visitor spending on Cape Cod looked on track to be 7% better than in 2018, which was a strong year, says Wendy Northcross, CEO of the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce. Now, many businesses are navigating a more challenged summer.
All Cape Boat Rentals in Hyannis had a slow start to the season, but the past few weeks have been busier than normal, says owner Jake Dewey. His business operates entirely outside, and offers an activity that allows people to remain socially distanced.
For the Ice Cream Smuggler in Dennis, reopening presented more of a challenge. The business started with curbside orders, staggering customers. Employees would run cartons of ice cream out to cars, often placing them in coolers in the trunk. It wasn’t unusual for customers to leave payment contained in a plastic bag.
“Our loyal customer base was just so excited to have us open,” says Carter Catalano president and owner of Hilltop Creamery, which owns the Ice Cream Smuggler, although some customers now have mixed reactions to the precautions.
“We did delay our opening. We didn’t know what to expect,” and safety was the top priority, she says.
Reopening lanes and the kitchen at The Alley Bowling and BBQ in Orleans has been even more complicated.
Owning a bowling alley during a shutdown is stressful, says Dave Currier – and so is having a 3-year-old with no child care. The silver lining? When the weather was bad in March and April, Mr. Currier and his girlfriend brought their daughter to The Alley to drive her Hot Wheels, play arcade games, and bowl. “She loves it,” says Mr. Currier, gesturing to the lanes and laughing.
The Alley has been in Mr. Currier’s family since the 1960s, and the lanes, pinsetters, and stadium seating are original.
Mr. Currier has no idea when he’ll be able to reopen for bowling, but he refuses to consider the threat of closing. “I’m not going to think like that. We’re going to make it,” he says.
In nearby Brewster, a greenery-filled, winding mini golf course offers a slow-paced, outdoor respite.
Justin Casey, owner of Harbor Lights Mini Golf, wasn’t able to open until the second week of June. But since then, business has been “pretty good.”
Will and Cody, brothers from the Boston area who asked that their last name not be used, have been vacationing on Cape Cod for nearly 18 years with their family, and have been mini golfing at Harbor Lights for nearly that long.
This year, after finishing a game, they are placing their clubs into a bucket marked “used clubs” to be sprayed with disinfectant.
For the most part, they’ve enjoyed a vacation similar to past years. “We’re still able to fish and go to the beach,” says Will. “The beaches are a little bit less crowded, and you’re able to space out.”