Businesses emerge from another tough summer

Staff shortages and Delta variant forced continued operational changes.

Island businesses faced a number of new challenges this past summer such as a worker shortage and the COVID Delta variant. — Lucas Thors

Island businesses that struggled to keep their doors open during the summer of 2020 had to face different challenges this past season, such as a major staffing shortage and a constantly changing public health landscape related to the COVID Delta variant.

“It’s safe to say it was a really challenging and strange summer, but very robust,” Nancy Gardella, executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce, told The Times.

For Island businesses, particularly retail, restaurants, hotels, and other elements of the bustling service and hospitality industry, it was a very different summer from the one prior.

Gardella noted that the Island had an unprecedentedly busy summer, and lots of people were spending money, where they weren’t during the summer COVID hit.

“And yet, of course, our businesses really struggled with the fact that it was so hard to get and keep their staff,” she said. “It was really a complete pendulum swing from last year, however it was really wonderful to see, even with restrictions still in place for our safety — it was still really gratifying to see so many businesses that weren’t able to operate last year be able to open up this season.”

According to Gardella, sightseeing companies, and events companies like wedding planners, for instance, were able to actually have a season this year, unlike the prior summer.

Even though they weren’t able to get the level of business they would normally be accustomed to, Gardella said, it was still encouraging to see those kinds of events even be able to happen on the Vineyard again.

Part of businesses seeing success, according to Gardella, was the ability for them to realize that their season would be unlike any other, and they would need to pivot accordingly based on staffing levels, the amount of business, and the state of public health at the time.

“Last year I would have said the resilience and the spirit of Island businesses was what held this community together, but this year not only did they need resilience, not only did our whole community have to work as a team, but we had to gracefully realise that with the shortness of staff, we weren’t going to be able to do all we were able to do in the past,” Gardella said.

Hours may have been shortened and menus may have been truncated. But while those kinds of adaptations at the beginning of the season may have been filled with uncertainty and worry, by midsummer businesses “had their stride going,” according to Gardella, “and man, oh man, were they delivering in such great ways.”

“They just embraced the awareness that they were doing the best they could, and I think the customers did as well,” Gardella said.

Rose Willett, proprietor of North Tisbury Farm in West Tisbury, described the season as “crazy” and marked by high volume. “It was certainly much busier than I would have anticipated,” Willett said. However, what she described as a “dearth of help” made for a “super-challenging” experience. 

Nevertheless, Willett said, she was feeling “just groovy” headed into September, and called 2021 “a cakewalk” compared with 2020. She also said patrons remained polite.

“I think people always behave well in my store,” she said. “I think it’s hard not to be nice in here.” Willett said she hoped to stay open until Thanksgiving, but the worker shortage has changed her anticipated wrap-up time to Columbus Day. 

Fat Ronnie’s owner Reynaldo Faust said staffing issues hit his restaurant particularly hard. “It was perfect, no problems,” Faust deadpanned. And then he said, “This was probably one of the toughest years ever.”

Faust said this summer was the busiest the Oak Bluffs burger bar has ever had, and he could have set sales records, but limited staff and paying extra overtime — sometimes more than regular weekly wages — proved to be a struggle. “It doesn’t matter if you have 1,000 customers a day. If you only have staff to serve 50 of them, you can only serve 50,” Faust said. “That was the issue we had.”

He said he faced the opposite issue at his other Fat Ronnie’s in Miami Beach, with enough staff, but fewer customers due to fewer cruise ships and international travelers. 

Despite not filling out his staff, Faust praised the employees he did have for their exceptional work ethic. “Without them, we would have had to close down,” Faust said. “I take my hat off to them.”

J.B. Blau owns a number of Island restaurants, including Sharky’s Cantina, Copper Wok, MV Chowder Co., the Loft, and SeaSmoke. “This was a very busy summer that was overshadowed by immense stress associated with staffing firstly and then COVID later in the season,” Blau wrote in a text message. “It was basically a bad made-for-TV horror movie that I hope to never watch again.”

Staffing was less of an issue for some other businesses. At Brickman’s of Martha’s Vineyard in Vineyard Haven, there was plenty of help but not enough managers. According to Tarni Fondren, owner of Brickman’s, the bigger issue was the supply-chain disruption that prevented certain products and brands from being sold in the store. Meeting order deadlines has been a source of concern for Fondren. She believes that the supply-chain disruption will not resolve itself until the next spring or summer. 

Even with the hurdles, “It was better than last year,” said Fondren.

As for the fall, Gardella said, she is excited to see the shift in population to an older crowd, and is happy to say that hotels are booked through September and into October. “I love to see that — we have reason to be optimistic,” Gardella said.

Executive director for the Oak Bluffs Association Christine Todd said businesses struggled to keep their doors open, between not having enough staff and in some instances faced with COVID cases within the staff or administration.

“It was a huge challenge like nobody has ever faced,” Todd said. “But I think everyone took it on with great gusto — like, ‘I am going to deal with this, I am going to make it through this season.’”

In regard to the conditions Island businesses were working under this past summer, Todd said it was “the perfect storm.”

She noted the issue with work visas being held up at the beginning of the season, making it difficult for businesses to secure early help as they opened up.

Additionally, many folks were collecting unemployment, which Todd said was also a contributing factor. “You also can’t eliminate a certain fear factor that some people may have had going back to work in a pandemic,” Todd said.

Normally, open summertime jobs are filled early on in the season, but this past summer, employers were paying more money per hour “just to get bodies in the door,” Todd said, which was a strange shift from the previous summer.

“People who probably would have had a hard time finding a job were finding employment easy. It made it a lot more competitive within the business community to attract and retain employees,” Todd noted.

With a lack of leadership in public health guidance from the state and federal government, Todd said, “it was kind of like the Wild West out here,” with municipalities and businesses having to come up with their own restrictions and ways of operating.

“People are really on their own deciding what is going to work and what isn’t going to work for my business. What measures do I put in place to keep my workers safe, will those measures deter people from working here?” Todd said.

With so many brand-new questions in the mix, Todd said, this past summer was tough to navigate.

Going forward, Todd said, she believes there should be more uniformity and consistency when it comes to creating a safe environment for summer visitors and residents alike to shop, recreate, and enjoy themselves.

“You can’t have rules in one store and then go into the next one and have different rules apply. When people get on the boat to come to Martha’s Vineyard, the rules on Cape Cod are different from Martha’s Vineyard — are they different in Edgartown than they are in Oak Bluffs? That is a problem,” Todd said.


Reporters Rich Saltzberg, Brian Dowd, George Brennan, and intern Eunki Seonwoo contributed to this story.