My first trip to Provincetown, Mass., was a rather dubious occasion. About 15 years ago, my partner at that time and I booked a long weekend in P-town that was, unbeknownst to us, leather weekend. In my polos and bright shorts, I was glaringly out of place amidst all of the chaps, vests, and exposed buttocks. I was a bit shocked, and said to my partner, “Is it always like this?” I felt like a zit on prom night.
Returning some years later, on just an average weekend — if there is such a thing — I fell in love with this charming enclave, and all of the wonderful restaurants and bars. And now, I would gladly go back, even if that trip falls on a leather weekend and requires me to wear chaps.
As most of us know by now, the July 4th holiday in P-town really did turn out to be a truly dubious experience. Nearly 1,000 positive COVID-19 cases resulted from large bar and dance crowds of shirtless partying masses of men crammed next to each other.
I recall seeing Facebook and Instagram pictures of some friends who were among the revelers, and I specifically remember uttering out loud, “That looks dangerous.” Sure enough it was. Most of those who tested positive were vaccinated, and the anomaly of this outcome was enough for the CDC to update their mask guidance that now suggests that vaccinated people should wear masks indoors. The CDC found, based primarily on what happened in P-town, that vaccinated people can transmit the virus. But it also found a silver-lining.
P-town, a gay mecca for generations, was thrust into the spotlight. The emergence and virulent presence of the virus was about as welcome as a polo-clad lad at leather weekend, except it was much more ominous. To me, since it involved lots of gay men testing positive in a verifiable petri dish, it had echoes of the early days of the AIDS crisis, when gay men in San Francisco were becoming sick in alarming numbers.
Once again, gay men were at the heart of a virus, that we still do not know much about. I’ve talked to a number of experts during the past year about COVID-19. This is still a relatively new disease, like AIDS was, and were still discovering new nuances and variants each day. Because so many remain unvaccinated, experts are now predicting that the virus might mutate into a variant that will be resistant to the vaccine.
Now back to P-town. The publicity about what happened during the 4th has certainly been detrimental to the community, but it’s really not anyone’s fault. Back in the early days of the virus, I wrote a column about social shaming in the era of social distancing, specifically about gay men participating in “Rona Waves” with underground house parties.
More recently with P-town, was there was no reason to social shame, since mask mandates and social distancing rules eased in areas with high vaccination rates, like Massachusetts, which has one of the highest rates of vaccinations of any state in the country? Probably not; however, those who acted wildly probably get a failing grade in using common sense.
I reached out to Alex Morse, the town manager of P-town, who is the de facto mayor. He was chosen by the Select Board in Provincetown in February to lead the municipality. Previously, he was mayor of nearby Holyoke, Mass. My first question to him was the most obvious one, “How’s it going?”
“Fortunately, the most challenging period is behind us, and things are getting better day by day. Collectively, all of the local and state officials, as well as representatives from the CDC have been working together to monitor and fix the situation. As soon as we identified two cases at the end of the weekend of the fourth, we immediately started an aggressive contact tracing program. We all begin each day, at 9 a.m., with a phone call to discuss the progress we’re making.”
Morse explained that the positivity rates are coming way down from their highest levels. “We peaked on July 15 at 15.1 percent, and as of July 30, the rate has dropped to anywhere between 3-5 percent over the last few days. This past weekend we had rates under 5 percent for three consecutive days, which indicates we are making tremendous progress toward containment. If these rates continue, we will consider easing some of the mandates we instituted after July 4th that worked to ensure the safety of our community.”
P-town, according to Morse, is now being looked at as a success case in how to aggressively contain the virus. “We detected the outbreak early. Throughout the pandemic, we have been, and remain, hyper aware of testing. The CDC now points to our region as an example of getting it right, mainly through thorough contact tracing. Our public health officials were getting strong support and feedback from those who tested positive, and who were specific about the places they went after the 4th, and the people they were with.”
The community has done what Morse describes as a “phenomenal job” in easing the outbreak. “We have always been working under the guidance of CDC mandates and advisories, so really what happened here was not outside of what we were told we could do.”
If there’s one lesson about P-town’s recent experience, it is that the vaccine works. “That’s really the story here,” Morse elaborated. “Out of 930 cases, there were only seven hospitalizations, from the beginning of the cluster to the end. The vaccine is protecting people like it should. Even with the spread of the Delta variant, almost all of the positive cases avoided hospitalizations and deaths, which is good news for the long-term effectiveness of the vaccine.”
Unfortunately, it was a matter of circumstance and a confluence of events that precipitated the issues in P-town. “We had over 60,000 people here that weekend, the most of any resort community of our size,” Morse pointed out. “And it was a rainy weekend, so most people were inside. But we’re now in a better position with regard to the virus than at any other time during the pandemic.”
At present, Morse is more confident than ever that P-town is a safe and fun place to visit. “We encourage people to come, and we want them to come vaccinated. What has happened since the outbreak is that most of our local businesses are increasing rules that require all of their employees to be vaccinated. And, they are requiring their patrons and customers to be vaccinated as well.”
P-town will continue with indoor mask mandates for the time being, once the positivity rates remain under 3 percent for an extended period of time. “We are going to move forward with an abundance of caution, which should be welcome news to anyone that wants to come here.
"There are so many irrational and unfounded fears right now about P-town because of all the news, which is understandable, but the bottom line is that this community is probably, at this point, one of the safest there is. This should be the message going forward for anyone who has plans to visit, or wants to visit us in the future.”
John Casey is editor at large for The Advocate.