Though each town on the Lower Cape has its own story to tell about the summer of 2020, on a regional level, COVID-19 appears to have done less economic harm than predicted. Robust visitor numbers from the Labor Day weekend clearly helped make up for a sluggish early summer.
“We had a busier summer than I had initially expected,” said state State Sen. Julian Cyr, D–Truro, speaking for the Cape Cod Reopening Task Force. The region was able to welcome visitors in larger numbers “and with less community spread than I had feared,” he said.
Traffic counts showed fewer than normal visitors to the Cape this summer, “but we saw an increase in traffic over the season,” Cyr said. Compared to last year, Memorial Day weekend traffic was down 25 percent, and the average weekend in August was 10 percent down. But by Labor Day, traffic counts were actually 2 percent over the same time period in 2019. The trend likely shows “more visitors as we went later into the season as reopening progressed.”
The region’s very high unemployment rate has also shown signs of moderating, Cyr said. In late May and early June, the statewide jobless rate was 16.2 percent, and some towns on the Cape experienced unemployment of between 20 and 30 percent. As of Sept. 5, “most towns are at high single-digit unemployment,” with the Hyannis area topping the Cape at around 11 percent. Regionally, “now it appears that we are sort of matching probably where the rest of the state is,” he said. Because of the seasonal economy, the Cape normally experiences seasonal fluctuations of joblessness.
Data from online vacation rental sources like Airbnb showed a 9.1 percent increase in home rentals in April, and a decrease in the number of available rental units through July. In that time frame, there were 244,000 fewer room-nights available than the same time last year.
“A lot of people took their rental units off the market,” Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Wendy Northcross said. Those people were either using the units themselves or were concerned about liability should their guests get sick, she said. Many more people rented units for 30, 60 or 90 days rather than just a week.
Through July, the Cape saw about a 4 percent decrease in short-term rentals year to year, but “we suffered the least losses of any other region in the state, in terms of overnight occupancy transactions,” Northcross said. The Cape also retained its strong room rate, with the average daily rate up about 5 percent.
“So that’s good news. The bad news is that we did not have the same volume that we had the year before,” she said. Still, given the pandemic, the rental figures are encouraging.
“Most owners had less turnover but more revenue,” said Ryan Castle of the Cape and Islands Association of Realtors. And a number of those renters ultimately become home buyers; home sales continue to be exceptionally strong, he noted.
Should the number of available rentals remain low, people will continue to visit the Cape, Northcross said.
“The number one reason people come to Cape Cod and stay on Cape Cod is to be with friends and family,” she said. While there’s no easy way to measure the number of house guests at any given time, if room rates are high and rentals are scarce, “I think people will still find a way to vacation here,” Northcross said.
Another key metric is the sale of beach parking permits.
“Most towns in the region did see a decrease in beach stickers and beach revenue,” Cyr said. While Chatham sold fewer day passes, it sold more weekly and seasonal passes, and ultimately saw an increase in revenue over 2019. Orleans saw a 15 percent decline in revenue from non-resident beach passes, Cyr said. Brewster’s nonresident sticker sales were up 25 percent, he noted.
On a regional level, the figures paint a broad picture, Cyr said.
“We had a much more robust season than expected,” he said. “This summer we did not see an across-the-board drop in recreational activity at beaches.”
“We really weren’t sure what to expect” from the summer of 2020, Cape Cod National Seashore Superintendent Brian Carlstrom said. Visitation was heavier than normal, and thanks to a very aggressive public information campaign “across every kind of media platform we possibly could,” most visitors followed the rules of social distancing and mask-wearing. “We’ve got a lot of space for people to spread out, and by and large they were doing that,” he said.
At the start of the season, “we expected to be running in the red with our fee collection program,” Carlstrom said. “That did not turn out to be the case.”
Like town beaches and nature trails, the National Seashore has kept its open spaces open and available throughout the pandemic, and Carlstrom said it will continue to do so, giving people “a respite from all the stress of COVID-19.”