In a letter to Gov. Charlie Baker’s advisory task force, 26 of the Vineyard’s innkeepers and hotel operators are expressing their fear of economic disaster unless they’re able to open for the summer season. The letter, which was sent to Baker’s advisory council on reopening the state, is also signed by 30 Nantucket businesses.
The letter points out that during the 2018 season the two islands generated $387 million in spending by visitors and have a combined hospitality payroll of $95 million. Hospitality accounts for 2,751 jobs, and provides $14 million worth of room and meals taxes for the state, as well as $17.7 million for local towns.
Diane Carr, who is a partner in the Hob Knob Inn and is acting as the spokesperson for the Martha’s Vineyard Lodging Group, said Martha’s Vineyard has never had an organized hospitality association, but owners have been talking in recent years. The effects of the pandemic on their industry made it important for them to work together.
“We all felt there’s strength in numbers,” she said of joining forces with Nantucket. “We’re all on the same page as far as what we’d like to see happen on reopening our season.”
The idea is to get some clear direction from the state. “We’re asking for the state to give us enough guidance in advance — don’t flip the switch without giving us preparatory time,” she said.
Carr said there was acknowledgement from a member of the advisory panel who works with Cape Air that the letter’s been received. The letter outlines the need to open with the safety of guests paramount.
“We the undersigned members of the lodging community located on the islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket collectively represent the majority of economic activity on both islands, in addition to construction and real estate,” the letter states. “We are deeply concerned about the impact the pandemic is having not only on the health of our residents but on the economic viability of our businesses and on our communities. Our impending crisis was recently highlighted by the very serious financial plight of the Steamship Authority, who also earns all its income in the peak summer months. The boat line, our lifeline, has public funding support options — we do not.”
The letter goes on to point out that the bulk of their business takes place between May and Labor Day. “The fragility of our tourism-driven economy lies in its seasonality and the reality that almost all of our businesses are small and family owned. It is within this very short window of time that island residents and business owners have their only opportunity to make a living,” the letter states. “As the season is soon upon us, it is critical that we begin to re-open and prepare our hotel, restaurant, and other tourism-based businesses to welcome guests. We understand and respect the need to phase the re-opening of our state-wide economy and support proper health restrictions. If we lose the summer season the impact will be devastating to our island’s economies and our businesses.”
Baker has set May 18 as a target date to begin reopening the economy and has an advisory committee working on how to best proceed.
In his press briefing on Tuesday, which was held after he toured Merrow Sewing Machine Company in Fall River — a company making personal protective equipment (PPE) — Baker said the advisory committee continues to meet with business groups across the state. He added that the Massachusetts Department of Public Health has started to see some positive trends in the number of cases and fewer hospitalizations, but those will have to continue in order to reopen parts of the economy.
“We’ve seen a pretty steady downward trend on the number of people hospitalized for COVID-19 for just about a week. That’s a really encouraging sign and a key piece of data we watch closely with respect to almost all issues associated with how we’re doing,” Baker said. “As we come to the other side of this and start to consider next steps for going forward, we need to see these numbers continue to fall and that’s based on guidance we’ve gotten from this country and, frankly, from many others as well.”
In their letter, the business leaders are seeking guidance on reopening. “We seek the state’s leadership in laying out specific reopening guidelines and restrictions by May 18 so that local officials in our communities can consistently apply, support, and follow these restrictions and directives thereafter,” the letter states. The letter cites gathering capacities, restaurant capacities, and transportation capacities as information that is critical. “We are committed to following all new commonwealth mandated protocols to provide a safe environment for both our employees and guests.”
The hospitality industry is ready to tackle any new standards having to do with social distancing, hygiene protocols, staffing and operations, cleaning and disinfecting, and educating our employees and revising our operational procedures, according to the letter.
“We ask you to give us a fighting chance to salvage what is left of the season and save our communities from economic collapse,” the letter states.
Carr said the hotel owners and innkeepers want to know what to tell customers who are calling to inquire. “We’re trying to give as positive a message as possible. Martha’s Vineyard is a wonderful place to vacation. There are larger events that are not happening, but we believe our beaches will be open and we’ll be open when we’re told to be,” she said. “A lot of it is up in the air and we don’t know. You just sigh because you don’t know.”
Baker didn’t address the letter from the Vineyard and Nantucket businesses on Tuesday, but he was asked about the protest outside the State House on Monday by people calling for him to ease restrictions.
Baker said while he appreciates and understands their concerns, he reiterated the need for the stay-at-home advisory and his ban on nonessential businesses. Without addressing or criticizing the protestors, Baker praised those who are complying with the efforts and reiterated the positive trends in the date. “I think from my point of view, the most amazing part of this, is people understand and have communicated they get the tradeoffs,” he said.
And, on the eve of his order calling for everyone to wear face coverings or masks in public places as of Wednesday, Baker said it’s not about keeping individuals safe from the virus as much as it’s about slowing the spreading COVID-19. “I’ve said this many times that the main reason you wear a mask, OK, is partially to protect yourself from others, but it’s mostly to protect others from you,” he said. “I know that’s kind of a hard concept when most of us think being sick comes with outward signs of symptoms. And for a lot of the people who end up dealing with COVID-19 and coronavirus, the outward signs and symptoms are brutal. But for a significant portion of the population that gets this virus and carries it and can in fact pass it on to others, there’s a growing body of evidence they may show no symptoms at all — they may not even know that they had it.”
Ultimately, Baker said he believes the public will do the right thing. “It’s not just about protecting yourself, it’s about protecting your friends and your family and your co-workers and those around you.”