‘Things Will Get Ugly’—New England Braces for Worst-Case Scenario
While some hope the seaside proves attractive with social distancing, others in this summer mecca fear another devastating extension of the lockdown is around the corner.
On a serene morning at Long Beach in Rockport, Massachusetts, last week, I parked my car and walked towards the shore. Several surfers floated in the water, waiting for waves. Walkers traipsed the length of the beach, heads down and hurried. The second homes which line the beach end-to-end stood vacant, and this struck me as odd—April is always slow for New England’s beach towns, but by this point in the spring there shouldn’t have been this many boarded-up windows. I have visited this beach for my entire life, but this time the mood was markedly different: not quiet but hushed.
The coronavirus and its subsequent cataclysm of stay-at-home orders, shelter-in-place orders, quarantines, and pandemic mania have brought American life to a screeching halt the last few weeks. Beaches from Newport to Portland have been closed, and with peak summer tourism season just a few short weeks away, a number of seasonally dependent businesses large and small throughout New England’s seaside towns are beginning to buckle under the stress.
“I’m trying to stay positive and hopeful,” said Stacy Miller, owner of Maine-based Sea Love Candles & Company, a candle business she has run for the last three years on a direct e-commerce and wholesale model. Miller was nearing completion on the buildout for her first retail space in the tony seaside town of Kennebunk (famous home to the Walker Point Estate, where the Bush family summers) when Maine’s governor issued a “Stay Healthy at Home” order on March 31, effectively barring her from opening her store. Investing in a brick-and-mortar presence is an enormous undertaking for any small business, and opening in time for peak tourism season was crucial to Miller’s business plan.
“It's quite unsettling,” she said. “It was very important for us to open in May. Now we’re praying that it’s June 1st.”
More established businesses are feeling the effects, as well. “We had to furlough everyone,” said Daniel Hostettler, the president and group managing director of Ocean House Management, which operates its storied flagship Ocean House, the Weekapaug Inn, and Watch Hill Inn all in Westerly, Rhode Island. The company generates about 65 percent of its annual revenue during the summer season, he said. So as the downturn in revenue stretches towards and, potentially, past Memorial Day, there is a more nebulous and troubling question: When, if ever, will those revenue streams return to normal?
“My feeling is that by July or August, our guests will be tired of being stuck at home,” said Hostettler. “New England is going to be perceived as a safer alternative to getting on an airplane or taking a cruise. Getting into your own car and going to resorts that are large and spread out with lots of outdoor activities are going to feel like a safe way to spend a little time away from your home.”
But what if the pandemic drags into June, July or beyond? As of now, many of New England’s most popular beaches are closed, and even should they re-open for Memorial Day—which is, at best, an ambitious proposition—visitors still worried about catching the virus may not flock to popular seaside destinations like they usually do. Rhode Island’s governor, Gina Raimondo, just announced that even if beaches re-open this summer, visitors can expect “strict restrictions” on “the size of crowds and our ability to congregate.”
New England’s coast needs to brace for the eventuality that this is going to be a disarmingly quiet summer by the sea. The region’s coastal residents have historically been prickly at best toward city folk swooping in on summer weekends (and especially so in recent weeks to New Yorkers fleeing a coronavirus epicenter); with the impending precipice in revenue that many businesses and municipalities are about tumble over, a worst-case scenario might just see those chilly New England demeanors melt into something a little more welcoming.
Furthermore, even if the pandemic does subside in time for summer, businesses which rely on seasonal foreign labor to fill temporary jobs face another mounting crisis. After announcing on March 5 that it would release an additional 35,000 H-2B seasonal job visas beyond its annual 66,000 visa limit, the Department of Homeland Security announced just three weeks later that the additional visas were “on hold pending review due to present economic circumstances” and that “no additional H-2B visas will be released until further notice.” For the numerous hotels, restaurants, fisheries and other businesses along New England’s coast which rely on international seasonal workers, this presents a conundrum; even if they are to be as nimble and flexible as the “present economic circumstances” demand of them, the likelihood of being able to re-open this summer with their full complement of staff is remote.
“We’re all targeting to open for Memorial Day Weekend,” said Hostettler. “If the pandemic stretches beyond that, that’s when it starts to really hurt us. As we get further into this it’s not looking optimistic.”
The effects of coronavirus on New England’s shores will reverberate throughout other industries over the coming months and years as well.
In Duxbury, Massachusetts, Island Creek Oysters, a pioneer of New England’s aquaculture renaissance, was supposed to celebrate its 25th anniversary this year with a robust summer season—a time in New England when ice-filled trays of oysters on the half shell are de rigueur at any summer gathering. June through September are Island Creek’s most robust sales months of the year.
Instead, Island Creek saw about 75 percent of its business evaporate overnight in late March as restaurants across the country were forced to close their doors and cancel their standing oyster orders. Currently, the company is using a skeleton crew to operate a modest retail store on Duxbury Bay as well as a surprisingly thriving e-commerce business. Direct-to-consumer channels are steady, but until visitors start returning to New England's resort towns and all those hotel and restaurant clients re-open, Island Creek will remain a shadow of its former self.
“It was a hard call because we’re a tight-knit community, but we had to lay off about 24 people from our core staff,” said Chris Sherman, Island Creek’s president. “For now, we’ve stabilized a bit… But my job is to make sure there’s an Island Creek to come back to when this is all said and done.”
As one of the Eastern seaboard’s leading purveyors of oysters, Island Creek has the resources and reserves to run a scaled-down operation—for the time being. The effect of this economic downturn on New England’s many smaller oyster farmers, however, will be felt for many months to come. A lack of wholesale orders means that the current crop of oysters in New England’s waters may grow too large to ever be sold once the market reopens. Furthermore, a lack of cashflow in the short term spells trouble for oyster farmers in the long term. “It’s a tough time of year for this to happen, because people are coming through winter and aren’t flush with cash,” said Sherman. “This is a critical time of year for farmers to propagate their seed to harvest for eighteen to twenty-four months from now… A lot of the smaller guys are dead in the water.”
The best case scenario, said Sherman, would be if restaurants and hotels could re-open on-premise dining in time for early summer, perhaps June. “We could dig out of that hole,” he said. “If restaurants are closed through the summer, that’s when things will get ugly.”