Tourist Towns Say, ‘Please Stay Away,’ During Coronavirus Lockdowns

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Resort towns rely on visitors as their economic lifeblood, but as the new coronavirus pandemic rages, many are asking nonresidents to stay away.

More than 12,000 residents of Cape Cod, Mass., signed a petition this week asking authorities to turn away visitors and nonresident homeowners from the two bridges that are the only roads in to the Boston-area summertime playland.

“It’s a stay-at-home order for a reason,” said Beth Hickman of South Yarmouth, who started the petition, in a local talk-radio interview Thursday. “It’s not about going to your second home because it’s a vacation.”

From Sedona, Ariz., to the Florida Keys, tourist spots across the country are trying to figure out ways to keep outsiders from bringing the new coronavirus with them. In some cases, that means taking aggressive steps like banning people who own second homes from their own property. In other cases, it means shutting down key access points. Full-time residents in these communities say their health-care systems weren’t built to handle pandemics and shutting out visitors is the only way to avoid disaster.

Pamela Wilkes, a retired health-care executive who lives in Albany, N.Y., but who owns a second home on the Cape, said the petition is outrageous. “My thought is I’m a taxpayer of Massachusetts,” she said. “I substantially support local business.”

But other nonresident homeowners say they understand and plan to stay away.

“There are 70- and 80-year-old retirees down there that are sort of our best friends,” said Tom Chamberlain, an insurance agent in Bridgewater, Mass., whose family has had a home on the Cape since the 1960s. “I think people shouldn’t be going down there to use up the resources and also infect them.”

Massachusetts officials said in a statement that they have no plans to set up roadblocks on the bridges for now. Visitors from out of state are asked via electronic signs all over the Cape to self-quarantine for 14 days.

The Island of North Haven, Maine, adopted a resolution last month strongly urging outsiders except those providing essential services not to come to the island in Penobscot Bay, reversing what had been a ban on outsiders coming to the island of 355 permanent residents. The island has a clinic, but no hospital.

Tourist boards and mayors of South Lake Tahoe, Calif.; Sedona, Ariz.; and Moab, Utah, are all discouraging visitors and asking or even ordering hotels and short-term rentals to stop booking.

The Florida Keys last week banned visitors but not property owners from the chain of islands. The Outer Banks of North Carolina banned both visitors and nonresident homeowners as of mid-March. Both areas have set up roadblocks to enforce the bans.

Dorothy Hester, public information officer for Dare County, which includes the Outer Banks, said law enforcement is sticking to the restrictions despite homeowners trying to gain access.

The county of 36,000 permanent residents has just one hospital with 24 beds and no intensive-care unit, she said. In the summer, when the population swells to 300,000, “they see things like a fish hook in the finger,” she said. More serious cases are transported by helicopter to trauma centers that can be hours away by car.

Dare County officials on Thursday reported three cases of Covid-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus.

The right to travel isn’t explicit in the Constitution, but judges have invoked it to strike down laws like those passed in California to stop migration during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, said Rick Su, a law professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law in Chapel Hill. The rights are more limited in a time of emergency. It is unlikely that a court would have time to rule on any challenge since the situation is so fluid and fast-moving, he said.

Cape Cod has 214,000 permanent residents and about twice as many in the summer, according to the local Chamber of Commerce. The hook-shaped cape, which is technically a man-made island because of a canal, has two hospitals with 354 beds and capacity to ramp up to 500, according to Cape Cod Healthcare. The system has 116 ICU beds and 80 ventilators, a spokeswoman said.

The state is reporting 283 cases of Covid-19 in Barnstable County, which includes the Cape.

Cape Cod’s Ms. Hickman, who didn’t respond to a request for comment, said in her radio interview that she decided to start the petition when she saw New York license plates at the grocery store or the beach. Normally, visitors and nonresident property owners don’t arrive on the island for another month or so, she said.

“I think it’s a fear response,” said Olaf Valli, who owns a surf shop in Wellfleet and grew up on the Cape but spends part of each week with his family in New Jersey. “We’re fighting a microscopic thing that we don’t have much understanding of. It’s easy to point the finger and blame anything that’s not familiar.”

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