Concerns Arise About Out Of State Visitors

By: Kat Szmit

Topics: Chatham , Harwich

Concern about out-of-state visitors prompted state and local officials to urge those coming from certain states to self-isolate for 14 days. TIM WOOD PHOTO

As cars with out-of-state plates pop up with more frequency around the Cape, residents are expressing concerns with what they see as an unwillingness to consider the health and safety of those who live and work here year-round.

The concerns seem to have been heard by state officials. On Tuesday, the state department of public health issued new guidance mandating that hotels, motels, inns, bed and breakfasts, and short-term rentals may only be used for purposes pertaining to COVID-19 and its treatment.

Social media has exploded in recent days with comments about out-of-staters opting to ride out the COVID-19 pandemic at second homes or vacation rentals, with complaints about visitors eschewing state and local self-quarantine orders as they take to area walking and biking trails, beaches, and other venues.

Not only did Governor Charlie Baker issue an order requiring all travelers from out of state to self-quarantine—especially those coming from New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut—but local officials did so as well, with Harwich, Chatham, and Orleans issuing similar requests. Even Cape Cod Healthcare posted a letter on its website urging second homeowners to self-quarantine for two weeks and to arrive prepared so as not to further impact local grocery stores already facing shortages. Tuesday's guidance extends that order, stating that lodging, including short-term rentals through online sites such as AirBnB and VRBO, can only be used to house healthcare workers, first responders, and others constituting the COVID-19 essential workforce, or as housing for members of vulnerable populations, such as homeless individuals and families.

The order further allows such rentals to be used by those self-quarantining, but only during the requisite 14-day period. The order prohibits the rental of the venues for purposes considered non-essential, such as leisure or vacations, and is valid through May 4.

But is the problem as out of hand as some are saying? Kimberly Robbins of Chatham Shores Realty in Chatham said she’s only had about three calls from people wanting to rent immediately. That said, Robbins has noticed an uptick in the amount of people in Chatham.

“When you’re looking at what’s happening around you, the beaches are crowded, the skate park is crowded, the streets are crowded, so there are definitely a lot of people here,” Robbins said.

Robbins said she’s been advising potential renters and returning second homeowners as to the possible impact on the community, particularly with regard to overwhelming Cape Cod and Falmouth Hospitals.

“Medical staff might not be able to handle summerlike populations,” Robbins said. “You might be able to come here but resources might be low.”

The other factor involving returning second homeowners involves the local workers charged with readying those homes.

“When they come, they usually have people open up their houses for them,” Robbins said. “If they discover issues, they have to call local servicepeople. You’re calling them into your home, which is just another thing to consider when thinking about coming back to your second home. There’s always a trail behind you when moving from place to place. We can work through this together, absolutely, but everybody has to cooperate on both sides.”

Chatham’s Health and Natural Resources Director Robert Duncanson said he, too, has seen an influx of out-of-state vehicles and a general increase in local traffic, as well as an increase in requests for seasonal water turn-ons, but said that while it’s unusual for this early in the season, there’s little that can be done beyond the urging of state and local government for visitors to self-quarantine.

“We’re just encouraging people to abide by that recommendation and practice social distancing,” Duncanson said. “They are taxpayers in town, and it’s not just a Chatham issue. It’s a Cape issue. Other tourist areas are facing the same thing. Rhode Island has taken a more aggressive tack and is threatening to be sued by New York.”

Duncanson said what year-round residents need to accept is that their summer counterparts are already here.

“This isn’t something that’s happened in the past three days. These people are here,” he said. “We posted the order on Facebook letting homeowners know. It’s not to dissuade them from coming. It’s not that they don’t have the right to come, but it’s more of an educational piece for them to decide.”

To further emphasize the message, electronic signs have been posted in various places around the area, including off of Exit 10 coming into Harwich and at the intersection of Main Street and Crowell Road in Chatham, reading, “Travelers from out of state self-quarantine 14 days.”

The worry is that too many returning summer residents aren’t following the protocol. Comments pertaining to the issue on The Chronicle’s Facebook page were divided, and at times vitriolic, some demanding the closure of bridges via the National Guard.

One commenter noted that New Yorkers were not heeding the warnings of their own governor, Andrew Cuomo, to stay home, and said it’s time for Baker to impose more aggressive warnings. Another, from Deb Walther, a second homeowner, said she has no plans to come up to the Cape until the need for restrictions had passed.

“How would you feel if this was your main home and everyone decided to come to their second home where you primarily live?” she asked. “You have got to think about the people that live year-round on the Cape. Yes, we all know we have all worked hard to have a second home, and feel you have every right to go there. But right now, you have been told to stay home. Stop thinking of yourselves. Start thinking of others.”

Some on social media have accused rental companies of enticing people to come to the Cape in order to boost the economy. Sonnie Hall of New England Vacation Rentals (NEVR) said her agency is getting calls and emails every day from concerned second homeowners and visitors.

“New England Vacation Rentals has mostly summer rental reservations, so we have leeway in working with a guest,” Hall said. “If a guest is requesting a cancellation, we are offering to move the reservation to a later date rather than just cancel it.”

Hall said she’s trying to help guests understand the ripple effect widespread cancellations could have on the Cape’s economy.

“Our hope is that they will not cancel, but instead postpone their trip to another available date,” Hall said, adding that NEVR is waiving their standard $250 change of reservation fee for anyone willing to do so.

Hall called a recent New York Times article alleging that phones at rental agencies were ringing off the hook misleading.

“The only people coming to the Cape are second homeowners fleeing their hometowns to retreat to their second homes on the Cape,” Hall said.

Hall said that should the restrictions on travel and non-essential businesses be eased as the COVID-19 threat abates, plans are in place to remind travelers of all the Cape has to offer.

“Once the crisis is over, Cape Cod will be an even more attractive place to come as there will be many last-minute deals,” Hall said. “We are a driving destination and a truly peaceful place to be.”

Sean Mulholland, a Latin teacher at Nauset Regional High School and Chatham resident, said he, too, has seen more out-of-state plates, but encourages people to take a different tact than frustration, anger, or bitterness.

“Have a little bit of humility here rather than privilege,” he said, adding that his hope is that healthy people, ideally those that self-quarantined upon their arrival, consider volunteering as a way to help. “When this first got started last week, I reached out to the council on aging, the food pantry, and churches to see what was needed, and there were some needs. They needed people to help pass out food, and I’ve seen other advertisements out there asking for help.”

Mulholland noted that since area schools are using remote learning during an extended closure, those unable to volunteer might consider donating or loaning out electronics to students in homes with financial challenges.

“My concern is that there is a lot of anxiety and that leads to defensiveness on both parts. I think discussion helps,” he said. “I don’t think it helps to ratchet up the tension with slanderous, accusatory letters. If it were me living in Connecticut or someplace that seemed a little more crowded, I’d probably drive here, too. I don’t fault people for doing that, but they have to think of the long-term consequences with regard to healthcare and emergency services. We’re just trying to make it work for the people we have here now.”