PHOTOS BY PAUL RIFKIN
Reopening looks as likely to be undemocratic in Mass as it has been anywhere in the country, with employers acting as the ultimate arbiters of whether their workers will be forced to choose between accepting the health risks of returning to work or getting kicked off unemployment.
As we hear the word “reopen” more and more from the lips of state officials, chambers of commerce, and other business associations, one part of the state awaits the announcement of plans especially eagerly. The coastal communities of Cape Cod would normally spend this time of the year preparing for tourist season, which begins during Memorial Day weekend and ramps up later in June. This year, the stakes are higher than they’ve ever been, as business owners fear the hit they could take from a quieter than usual season, and workers and other locals worry about whether the Cape can safely handle an influx of visitors.
Some have been on edge for months.
“The Cape is already struggling without any influx of additional people,” Cape Cod DSA co-chairs Cole Silva and Michael Heras wrote in an email response to questions for this story. According to them, beaches and food shops are often “crowded with people who are… not observing social distancing guidelines.” Many grocery stores have also experienced major supply shortages, as the Cape’s population surged earlier than usual during the first weeks of the outbreak. The heightened anxiety caused by the initial influx of visitors, many coming from hard-hit states like New York and New Jersey, prompted a Yarmouth woman to create a petition for the closure of the Cape’s two highway bridges to the mainland to all but medical and commercial traffic. To date, she has collected more than 13,000 signatures.
But while many locals fear what a further influx of tourists, with expectations of service and resultant pressure on businesses to reopen, will mean for the safety of the year-round population, others fear what may happen if they don’t come.
Over the last 60 or so years, Cape Cod has become ever more reliant on tourism to the point that it has crowded out nearly everything else. In 2017 it was a $1.1 billion industry that generated over $300 million in wages and $122 million in state and local taxes. As a result, the area’s chambers have had to carefully tailor their language. “Well, we call them visitors and guests,” Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce Wendy Northcross said when asked about the group’s current messaging for tourists. She continued, “We’ve been running a campaign in our key drive markets that says, ‘We’re getting ready to welcome you back… when the time is right.’”
While Barnstable County officials said, in response to the bridge closure petition, that they didn’t want the situation to turn “hostile,” a statement of guidance for visitors—made jointly by the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce and Martha’s Vineyard Hospital—faced “awful” backlash. In an attempt to save face, Chamber Executive Director Nancy Gardella told the Vineyard Gazette, “As an organization that has prided itself as advocates for our members and our local economy, the truth is we fell short today. In thinking we could support our community in this public health crisis, we forgot that our focus is not public health… Our focus is you. It’s business. It’s our Island’s prosperity.”
As with climate change, the debate on “reopening” has positioned public health as opposed to economic concerns. The idea is that the economy can conceivably be healthy if businesses open, all despite billions that must be spent on rebuilding, be it due to hurricane damage or healthcare and safety net program costs for families that lose breadwinners who are forced to return to work. Given the policing of rhetoric by online trolls, anti-lockdown protestors, and the media outlets who can’t stop talking about them, many officials are remaining tight-lipped about plans extending beyond Governor Charlie Baker’s state of emergency, which currently ends May 18—even when some experts are warning that, best case scenario, this could be a three-year ordeal.
For his part, Baker has drawn criticism from members of the Massachusetts House of Representatives for the lack of diversity on his “Reopening Advisory Board.” A group of 19 legislators (none from the Cape) signed on to a letter by Rep. Tami Gouveia of Acton urging that representatives of organized labor, mental health and healthcare workers, educators, seniors, immigrants, and public health nonprofits be added to the board. The letter also urges greater publicity for the portal to submit comments to the Advisory Board, which includes “Business Name or Association” as a required field, and questions like “what do you anticipate to be the greatest barriers for businesses to reopen and employees to return to work in the Commonwealth?” and “What are the most critical enablers for your industry/stakeholder group to reopen in the near term?”
“I’ve seen this in my 20-year career over and over again, when decision making is left only to high level CEOs,” Gouveia told me over the phone. “We’re not adhering to good public health practice by not having diverse voices, [and] it could impact some segments of the population unfairly.” Asked whether she felt there was a disconnect between lawmakers and the Baker administration—given that the legislature is continuing to focus on a slew of bills aimed at harm reduction—Gouveia said she wasn’t sure, but “there’s not a whole lot that the legislature has been involved in when it comes to weighing in on what the plan is, [even though] state representatives and senators are the ones fielding the worries and concerns from our constituents.”
State legislators from Cape Cod have been more directly involved in planning for reopening, having issued guidelines for visitors in collaboration with the region’s healthcare providers, chambers of commerce, and county government. Some also sit on the recently established Cape Cod Reopening Task Force, which includes representatives of local government, the National Seashore, several representatives from the Cape’s largest businesses, as well as the Vice President of a local SEIU chapter.
“Our aim here is twofold: to save lives, and to save livelihoods,” said state Sen. Julian Cyr, who represents most of the Cape and Islands. Cyr repeatedly noted how the Cape’s town and county governments must “speak with one voice” to deliver “uniform and consistent information.” Beyond that, the reopening task force will simply be following the lead of the governor’s advisory board and ensuring that consideration of the Cape’s seasonal economy takes place. “I don’t feel like we’re not being heard as a region, though sometimes that does happen.”
Asked whether there might be any relief bills in the works for small business owners who cannot open, either because they are not allowed or anticipate that operating at a reduced capacity wouldn’t cover the cost of opening, Cyr forecasted financial uncertainty on the commonwealth’s horizon. Facing a $5 billion drop in revenue out of a $43 billion budget is “going to mean very significant, painful cuts across the board,” he said. “If federal stimulus does come through, it could really change the picture,” but that is far from a sure thing at this point. Moving forward in that uncertainty, the senator wondered aloud what relief might look like under a tight budget, which somehow sounded a lot like deregulation: “What can we do to ease some rules or make some things easier?”
Without serious efforts in place to curtail non-essential travel—and it looks like there will not be any—it will not be long before, prepared or not, at least some tourists and second-homeowners make their way to the Cape. While the Baker administration has said of the announcement of initial plans on May 18 that “there won’t be anyone firing a starting gun,” eventual reopening so far looks as likely to be undemocratic in Massachusetts as it has been anywhere in the country, with employers acting as the ultimate arbiters of whether their workers will be forced to choose between accepting the health risks of returning to work or getting kicked off unemployment.
Understanding the state’s financial situation, reopening appears to be a calculated gamble on the governor’s part: with no reason to expect that FEMA relief would be distributed without deference to the grudges of President Donald Trump, Mass is moving forward with reactive rather than proactive public health policy. Avoid bailing out workers and small businesses now, allow reopening, and hope that you don’t have to do it later—or deal with the aftermath of a spike in cases.
At this point, such an outcome seems idealistic at best. Even countries that went into reopening far more prepared than the US are now seeing spikes and reimplementing some lockdown measures. “We need to be thinking now about, how do we make sure that people have the financial resources to be able to meet their needs if we have to go back into a stay at home situation again,” Rep. Gouveia said, noting that universal testing and ramped-up contact tracing are needed to safely reopen. “It’s been painful to see how unprepared we were as a state and as a nation.”
In trying to determine what the Cape’s testing capacity will be by the summer, I was directed back and forth between the Chamber of Commerce and Barnstable County health department. Neither could give me an answer, nor could Sen. Cyr. With identifying and tracking cases likely only to get more difficult with another influx of visitors and unknown preventative capacities, a second spike may be even deadlier than the first, especially given Cape Cod Healthcare’s recent announcement to furlough over 600 employees in the face of falling revenue.
Shannon Sherman, RN, chair of the Massachusetts Nurses Association local bargaining unit at Cape Cod Hospital, called the action “disgusting” in a statement, saying that the union “believe[s the move] will place all of our patients in jeopardy and have dangerous consequences for the remaining staff, who are already exhausted from working under what has been the most trying time for health care workers.” The MNA statement also noted that as hundreds of workers deal with the loss of income, the CEO and senior management, who “provid[e] no care to anyone,” are accepting pay cuts of only 5-12.5%.
After years of building an economy the sole tenet of which is courting outsiders to visit and spend money on frivolities, the advent of a pandemic that makes such mobility dangerous seems an almost poetic rebuttal to the architects of such a harebrained system—except that it will not be those people who are affected by it. Rather, it will be the healthcare and service industry workers on whom the governor and his panel of insiders are willing to gamble, the guinea pigs for the repeated assurances that no reopening will take place that isn’t safe. My cousin, an ER nurse at Cape Cod Hospital, perhaps inadvertently captured the absurdity of this reassurance best when he told me over the phone, “that’s the crazy thing about this virus… the rules change every week. Every day.”