How a resort town is recruiting ‘coronavirus refugees’ to help full-time residents

In resort towns around the country, the out-of-state license plate has become a bit of a scarlet letter, the marker of a coronavirus refugee taking shelter in a second home. Full-time residents understandably fear that part-timers will overburden hospitals and supermarkets, not to mention spread disease.

On Cape Cod in Massachusetts, some locals have gone so far as to call for closing the bridges that connect the peninsula to the mainland. But in one town—Chatham, at the cape’s elbow—the chairman of the finance committee contemplated the unseasonable parade of fancy out-of-state cars and had a different thought: Why not start an emergency relief fund to help local people, and finance it with donations from summer people? Chatham’s full-time population is a little over 6,000; summer visitors exceed 20,000 every year

CHATHAM, MA – MARCH 31: Commercial fishing boats are anchored in Chatham Harbor in Chatham, MA on March 31, 2020. With restaurants throughout the world closed due to the coronavirus, the regions lobstermen, scallopers, and others who land much of the nations $5.6 billion commercial catch are facing economic devastation, with many forced to tie up or store their boats in dry dock until the market rebounds. (Photo by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

“As the greater metropolitan New York area became more of a hot spot, there was an observable change in our automotive demographics,” according to the chairman, Stephen S. Daniel. “A bewildering number of expensive cars—Mercedes, Porsches, a smattering of Audis, even an Aston Martin—were, overnight, cruising the streets. It didn’t take long to figure out that the new iron in town could be part of the solution. These people were here for the same reason I live here full time; I love this town. They love this town.” 

Daniel and his wife, Mary Beth, set up an entity they called the Chatham Coronavirus Impact Fund, and seeded it with $30,000 of their own money. They drafted a letter announcing its creation and sent it out. “I’ve got a Rolodex of people with big summer homes,” Stephen says. “I want to put a target on all of their backs.” He got in touch with a developer who builds lavish summer homes and asked for his contacts, too.

The response was swift and enthusiastic. Within days the CCIF had commitments of close to $200,000—some from summer people, some from well-to-do full-time residents, and $100,000 from a local foundation. Two marketing firms—Tidal Marketing and The Right Storey—devised a social media and press strategy, created a Facebook page, and built a website, for free. Two established local charities agreed to handle applications and distribute funds. 

Anyone may donate to the CCIF, but only full-time Chatham residents in need can receive distributions. Monthly grants of $800 for a family, or $400 for an individual, will be made primarily to pay for things like rent, electricity, car repairs, and medical care. Payments will be made directly to vendors, not to applicants.

CAPE COD, CHATHAM, MASSACHUSETTS, UNITED STATES – 2019/09/05: Chatham Lighthouse and Coast Guard station, Cape Cod. (Photo by John Greim/LightRocket via Getty Images)

It’s a simple idea, but somebody had to think of it, and the Daniels fit the profile. Stephen, a native of Darien, CT, grew up spending summers in Chatham. He went to college at Wesleyan, then got a degree at the Yale School of Management and followed an entrepreneurial career in finance. Mary Beth grew up in South Hadley, MA, graduated from Mount Holyoke College, and then went into real estate banking. The Daniels settled in New York City and used their money to explore all sorts of ventures that interested them, from shark research to ancient grains.

One evening they dined at wd-50, the Manhattan restaurant where Wylie Dufresne was pioneering molecular gastronomy. After dinner Stephen marched into the kitchen, introduced himself to Dufresne, and asked whether he might support the chef’s culinary innovations with a new piece of machinery or something. The two men became friends and later partners in a bistro called Alder, which received a two-star review in The New York Times when it opened in 2013.

In 2015 the Daniels and their two children, Harding and India, moved to Chatham full time. Stephen and Mary Beth both got involved in local government and philanthropy, which gave them a fresh perspective. “Emerging from Plato’s Cave, I was struck by the extraordinary level of need that is hidden in plain sight here in Chatham,” Stephen says. As the Daniels wrote in their pitch letter for the CCIF, “Beneath the veneer of blue hydrangeas, sweeping green lawns, well-maintained homes and our town’s natural beauty lies a more hardscrabble existence for many of our full time residents….There is a depth of need in Chatham that, while summer residents, we found hard to detect, notwithstanding our philanthropy and community engagement over the years.” 

Resorts the world over are wrestling with similar conditions, of course. But it’s apt that an approach like this be tried in Chatham, which is said to be the burial place of Tisquantum, the Native American also known as Squanto. As most schoolchildren know, Squanto was the interpreter between the locals and the out-of-towners at that feast in 1621, the first Thanksgiving.  

Let us try to forget for the moment that Squanto was the last of his tribe, the Patuxet. The rest were wiped out in an epidemic.

Timothy K. Smith, formerly the senior features editor at Fortune magazine, is the co-author of “Scholars of Mayhem: My Father’s Secret War in Nazi-Occupied France.” 

See also:

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