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Martha’s Vineyard Braces and Adapts in the Summer of COVID-19

Eve Zuckoff
Anthony Foster and Newton Wait, co-owners of Vineyard Carribbean Cuisine, wait for customers at their Oak Bluffs restaurant.

In a minivan packed past the point of seeing out the rear window, Dottie and Bob Engler waited in Woods Hole to drive onto a ferry destined for Martha’s Vineyard.

“We’re hoping, because it’s full of fresh air and openness, that it’ll be a great respite for us this summer,” Dottie said. 

On Memorial Day Weekend, the Newton couple drove through Friday traffic to open up their West Tisbury house for the season. But already they were thinking about how different this summer will be. 

“It’s a little sad to think we won’t say goodnight to the sun at Menemsha with everybody because that’s always such a treat,” she said. “But you know, you make do. … It doesn’t look like it’s going to be a real open summer, though.” 

In towns throughout New England that rely on tourism, the coronavirus has upended summer traditions and raised questions and doubts about how June-through-August will look and feel like for visitors and residents. Already, the summer of 2020 is off to a slow start, with just 65 percent of the normal ferry traffic to the island on Memorial Day weekend. 

The first to notice the relative quiet were the year-round residents. 

“All the big fireworks, the parades, the [Grand] Illumination, everything is canceled,” said Darcie Edness, over take-out breakfast. 

“Everything,” agreed Tamara Robertson, a fourth-generation Vineyarder. 

On one hand, Edness said, it’s nice to think that she could enjoy some calm this summer. 

“I'm looking forward to it,” Edness said. “But at the same time, I really feel bad for the business owners.”

That is, business owners like Anthony Foster, owner of Vineyard Caribbean Cuisine. 

“I’ve never seen anything like this in the 30 years that I’ve been here,” Foster said.

He said business at his Jamaican takeout spot on Memorial Day Weekend was down about 70 percent. He’ll need to nearly double his receipts going forward. 

“I mean, at 50 percent, we probably could survive,” he said. “But to actually make money you kind of need 100 percent of business.”

To help shopkeepers, the town is considering banning cars from some busy tourist streets, turning them into pedestrian-only walkways for limited periods. Foster’s business partner Newton Wait said they need the foot traffic. 

“If somebody comes down the street and buys an ice cream, they will see us and buy a jerk chicken,” he noted.  “You know, the day-trippers. We want to see that.”

Those day-trippers include people like Sue and Steve Carlson, who came up from Rhode Island. 

“I didn’t want to do yard work,” Sue said. “So we said, ‘Let's take a ride over on the ferry just for something to do.’”

But the day didn’t exactly go as planned.

“We literally searched for two hours for a bathroom,” Sue said. “Seriously, we had a cop help [Steve] find someplace to use the bathroom because there [are] no open bathrooms on the island. And it's Memorial Day Weekend. Go figure.” 

A few streets over, Craig Hall spent the afternoon raking outside his colorful gingerbread cottage. He said he’s still taking in the differences -- and the challenges of this summer. 

“Well, it's a mess for sure,” he said. 

This summer, Hall said, he plans to go back and forth between his homes in Oak Bluffs and Pittsburgh, but doesn’t recommend tourists do the same. 

“If people haven't been here before, I'd say stay away and come back in a couple of years when things get back to normal.”

Until then, he’ll be thinking about the youngest generation of his family.  

“Our grandkids aren’t coming. [Under normal circumstances], they'd be coming in a week or so and, you know, there's nothing open for them to do,” he said. “The Flying Horses [Carousel]  isn't open. The libraries aren't open. So all that, for little kids, is an issue.”  

From shuttered carousels to canceled fairs and festivals, there’s no question this summer will be different. But to Dottie Engler, just approaching the ferry, that’s not what matters. 

“When you cross the planks onto the Vineyard a lot of weight gets lifted,” she said. “Whatever’s ahead of us we know we’ll have that great Vineyard feeling again.” 

That feeling? Summer.  

Eve Zuckoff covers the environment and human impacts of climate change for CAI.