How a Changing Provincetown Is Emerging From the Pandemic Stronger Than Ever

After two brutal summers, Cape Cod’s queer enclave is ready to leave its darkest days in the past.
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There are few drives anywhere on the east coast that are as romantic and spellbinding as the final miles of Route 6 into Provincetown. After sixty miles of chaotic multi-lane highway from the Sagamore Bridge to Cape Cod—and the “family-friendly” (read: historically heterosexual and white) suburbs of Sandwich, Barnstable, Yarmouth, Brewster, and Orleans, the Mid Cape Highway peters down to a two-lane road that weaves its way through the sleepy villages of Wellfleet and Truro. Until finally, as if by cinematic magic, a cluster of historic fishing shacks and saltbox houses reveals itself amongst the dunes. In the heart of town, the 252-foot Pilgrim Monument obelisk is visible for miles. Because you’re surrounded by water, the light here seems to glimmer more brightly here than anywhere else on the Cape.

In Provincetown, you’re at the tip of Cape Cod, but you’re also, in a sense, at the end of the world. Noted interior designer and prolific Provincetown resident Ken Fulk describes it as having “a sort of ‘land’s end’ quality,” something that differentiates it from other queer destinations like Fire Island in New York, Rehoboth Beach in Delaware, or even remote international gay beach hubs like Mykonos. “There’s one way in, and one way out,” said Fulk in a recent phone interview. “You’re not on your way to anywhere else when you’re going there.”

For centuries, this town at the tip of the Cape has been a haven for outsiders escaping tough times—and not just those in the queer community. “It started with the Pilgrims, and then the Portuguese fishermen, and then came all these artists and artisans, writers and activists, and beatniks,” said Fulk, on why so many communities—both before and including LGBT people—seek out Provincetown’s natural beauty. “For generations, it’s been a place of inspiration, hope, and optimism.”

So when COVID came to Provincetown, hope and optimism became its greatest strengths. As with many seasonal, tourism-dependent towns around the world, when the pandemic struck the town’s small businesses dealt with lockdowns, restaurants struggled with staffing shortages, and owner-operated hotels saw many months’ worth of reservations slip through their fingers like sand. When you’re so isolated from the rest of the surrounding world, like Provincetown is, the only choice is to move forward. Here at land’s end, locals have learned, all you have is each other.

By summer 2021 when it seemed that a “hot vax summer” season might yet be possible, the town had completely reinvented itself to safely welcome visitors—converting outdoor spaces into performance venues for open-air drag shows, requiring masks indoors, and limiting party sizes at indoor restaurants. For all intents and purposes, the town had fully mobilized for what town manager Alex Morse calls “balancing public health but also supporting Provincetown’s identity as a welcoming and inclusive destination.”

“Provincetown should be extremely proud of the way we came together over the last two summers to keep residents safe and to do everything we can to promote public health among our residents and visitors,” said Morse. But when a cluster of cases erupted right after July 4th weekend and Pride month last year, the world was quick to point fingers at the gay community. “All the news outlets blamed the gays for spreading COVID, but none of the reporters came back two weeks later when our infection rate was back under three percent, everyone was back in masks, and it was more than under control,” says Qya Cristál, a drag entertainer and year-round resident.

In fact, Provincetown quickly became a case study for how communities can and should mobilize to mitigate outbreaks in a pandemic. The town provided mobile testing gear and released infection rates on a daily basis, and residents opened their homes and rental units to those in need of quarantine. The data gathered from that cluster of infections became the core foundation for the CDC’s understanding of the Delta variant.

“The vast majority of people who live and vacation here understand the meaning of community, the power of compassion [and] the importance of protecting one another,” said Bryan Barbieri, a hospitality communications consultant and home owner in town. “The LGBTQ+ community has lived through the trauma of public health epidemics for decades, which has resulted in health-focused practices that ultimately helped to track and stifle this outbreak.”

And now, at long last, Provincetown is more poised than ever to have the “hot vax summer” it deserves. According to Morse, hotels have reservations through the season, visas for international seasonal workers are nearly back to pre-pandemic levels (after years of the State Department hardly allowing any foreigners to seek work in America), and the community is gearing up to welcome more visitors than ever before.

“It really feels like a renaissance is coming,” said Cristál. For example, she began performing shows over the winter last year, which (as far as anyone can remember) is the first time Provincetown has had drag shows in the off-season. Instead of the typical winter doldrums, there is now a permanent community that keeps Provincetown’s infectious energy going year-round—and that community is ready to roar into the summer months like never before.

“For the longest time the rumor was that the town is dead until April,” said Cristál. “But we were all together this winter and thought, why can’t we have drag shows still? And now people are talking about this probably being the busiest P-town summer ever.” And the town’s beloved small businesses aren’t just reopening for the season—they’re thriving. Very few were lost during the pandemic, and many, in fact, changed locations in search of larger spaces, including drag boutiques House of La Rue and B.Xclusive

If you’re visiting Provincetown this summer, you can expect a trip that is more beautiful, more fabulous, more Provincetown than ever before—not despite all the events of the pandemic, but because of them. This is, after all, a place where people on the fringes have historically thrived in the face of adversity.

“For me, the love and kindness you find in Provincetown is exemplary, and it’s a time in the world when we all need that,” Fulk said. “Provincetown is the way the world should be. This town really is the best of who we are.”