Updated June 1
Martha’s Vineyard is expecting many tourists to come as the summer season approaches, and if Saturday night is any indication, they were thirsty to get together. A crowd of people was lined up on Circuit Avenue in Oak Bluffs to get into the Ritz, where live music is back.
Sean Driscoll, communications director of the Steamship Authority, told The Times there is strong demand for travel this summer. In the beginning of the year, it was uncertain whether there would be an appetite for travel due to COVID-19. However, strong interest could be seen when vehicle reservations opened for the summer in January. In terms of vehicle travel, the SSA is seeing a return or even a surpassing of 2019 numbers. According to numbers Driscoll provided, vehicle reservations from Thursday to Tuesday total 10,000. During the same period surrounding Memorial Day weekend, 2019 saw 8,692 vehicle reservations and 2020 saw 6,648 vehicle reservations.
On Saturday morning, some folks headed to the Island were stranded in Woods Hole because of strong winds from the weekend storm, which forced cancellations, though by late morning ferries were making their scheduled crossings. People were huddled inside bus shelters and the terminal, and vehicles — some with luggage containers on the roofs — were lined up waiting for passage.
While vehicle reservations are up, It is uncertain whether passenger travel will see a similar increase for day-trippers. “The big question for us is passenger travel and walk-ons, because we don’t need an advance reservation for that, so we don’t really know what the appetite is going to be for people who aren’t taking their cars, and are just coming over for a day trip or a weekend,” said Driscoll. He said these numbers will continue to be monitored.
As of Saturday, Gov. Charlie Baker lifted COVID restrictions for Massachusetts. However, Driscoll said the mask mandates have not been lifted for public transit. The SSA will continue to follow state and federal guidelines, alongside maintaining cleaning protocols. Driscoll said the difficulty is that this is a changing policy, and not everyone is uniform about mask-wearing. “It is a challenge. People are ready to be done with masks, and there is some conflicting guidance now based on where you are and what you have to do,” he said. Driscoll said that signs, announcements, and other methods will be used to give customers a “gentle reminder” about the SSA’s guidelines. A supply of masks will be available for customers who do not have one.
Tourists are still excited to come to the Island.
Sri Osuri, who came from Natick with a friend for a bicycle-riding trip, is comfortable with traveling. “I’m fully vaccinated, and I am excited for the summer,” said Osuri.
Johnny Le came with his girlfriend from New York City to get away from the urban environment and have a relaxing weekend. He hopes to see the cliffs and beaches of Martha’s Vineyard. Le said he thinks that as long as people wear masks and social distance from each other, they can still live their lives. “We’re in the Northeast, and I feel people take the vaccine more seriously here compared to other parts of the country,” said Le. “For the most part, numbers are going down, so I trust the data.”
The increase in tourists is viewed as a positive for Island businesses.
Jen Freeman, general manager of Reliable Self-Service Market in Oak Bluffs, said she is glad to see the tourists returning: “It’s how we earn a living. We need them in order to survive.” She said Reliable will continue to follow the orders of the governor and board of health to provide a safe environment.
Phil Hughes, owner of Wheel Happy Bicycle Shops in Edgartown, agreed with these sentiments. Hughes said he and his staff are all vaccinated. He expressed his readiness for some level of normalcy, and the importance of the tourism industry for Island businesses as cases are starting to go down. “Hopefully everyone has been doing the right stuff,” said Hughes.
John Rivera, owner of Tisberry Frozen Yogurt in Vineyard Haven, has conflicting feelings about the lifting of restrictions. He is happy that his store will be allowed to accommodate more customers, and not force them to wait in a line outside during the hot summer days. However, he is uncertain the lifting of restrictions is the right move for people’s safety. “I’m not really positive it’s a good idea yet. It might be better to hold for a little longer.”
Bernard Chiu, owner of Harbor View Hotel in Edgartown, said that Memorial Day weekend for the hotel was busy, but not as busy as he expected. “There were not as many last-minute bookings as we anticipated, presumably due to the weather,” he said. However, he mentioned that they are excited for a busy rest of the season. “We recently renovated the hotel, so we are excited for guests to return and see our new changes,” said Chiu.
Mike Sawyer, owner of Barn Bowl & Bistro in Oak Bluffs, said their Memorial Day weekend was a success. He mentioned that the transition between heavy restrictions and none at all seemed a little abrupt, but he is excited to be back with limited restrictions. “We were able to have additional bowling lanes open due to the fewer social distancing policies,” Sawyer said. “It was great to see everyone having fun.”
Island businesses have a shared hardship of dealing with the COVID pandemic. Freeman and Hughes said getting supplies was and still is difficult because of the disruption in the supply chain. Freeman said Reliable is having difficulty in maintaining the staffing levels they need because “there is just no help to be had.” Hughes said Wheel Happy limited bicycle rentals during 2020, but the retail and repair side of the business still did well. Rivera said he was forced to open his store much later than usual in 2020, so his business took a hit, and “it was a little painful at the beginning.”
Memorial Day weekend is an opportunity for Island businesses to earn more revenue. Freeman said Reliable just plans to provide its customers with the best service possible, given their limitations in supplies and staff. Rivera expects Tisberry to be full of customers. “We get up every day, and we try the best we can,” said Freeman.
There is still some level of risk for people. Tisbury remains Massachusetts’ only COVID red zone, the highest risk category for COVID-19 transmission. However, this does not seem to affect the coming of tourists.
“There seems to be some pent-up demand for people who are wanting to come to the Island,” said Driscoll. “It’s a testament to Martha’s Vineyard’s popularity for people who want to have a good summer weekend.”
Katie Cerulle contributed to this story.