Roberto Santamaria, Nantucket’s health and human services director, said during the meeting that the island has recorded 41 positive cases since March, though it had only 14 cases at the beginning of June.
“Proportionally, we’re still doing a lot better than the Cape and the rest of the state as a whole,” Santamaria said.
But in spite of those comparatively low numbers, town officials maintain, many island visitors have been seen in recent weeks leaving alcohol-serving restaurants inebriated after closing, often without masks or without observing social distancing.
Fewer than five positive cases on the island, Santamaria said, have been linked to such “risky behaviors.”
And the behavior, Select Board member Melissa Murphy said, “gets riskier at night” as the evening wears on.
“It’s mostly at night that we’re seeing the problems,” Santamaria said, adding that some restaurants have already voluntarily started closing early.
Restaurant owners on the island who spoke to the Globe Thursday had mixed reactions to the idea of closing early.
“We have no problem closing early if that’s what they think is best, but the town needs to exhaust other avenues of protecting staff and patrons,” said Genevieve Gauvin, owner of the Saltbox Tavern & Table on Nantucket. “The answer isn’t always to shut down restaurants.”
Gauvin said staffing’s also an issue.
“We all share staff, and everyone [is] short staffed,” Gauvin said of the island’s restaurants. “If one person gets it, it’ll spread like wildfire. It’ll just run through all the restaurants.” Town officials, Gauvin said, “need to give us tools to keep everyone safe and not just crackdown on us. We already went through three months of shutdown.”
Orla Murphy-LaScola, owner of The Proprietors Bar & Table, said the restaurant has already decided to cease drink service late at night, foregoing a major revenue source.
“It’s just not safe, and we can’t expect people who drink at night to go out on the streets and practice safe health guidelines,” Murphy-LaScola said. “We don’t do drink service, and that’s a huge part of our business. It’s in our name.”
She said she believes local officials are trying their best to address the situation while helping struggling restaurants.
“They’re doing everything they can to keep us open and safe. But it depends on the overall community to keep staff and guests safe,” Murphy-LaScola said. “If they do decide to place restrictions, it’s because they honestly feel its important to keep everybody [safe].”
But Bob Luz, president and chief executive officer of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, said in a statement that closing restaurants earlier doesn’t appear to be the answer.
“Whether it is South Beach, The Hampton’s or Nantucket, the one thing we know is while people go on vacation to some exclusive destinations, Covid does not go on vacation,” Luz said. “Those vacationers from all around our country and the world also swells the population on the island to 6 or 7 times normal, so sadly statistically we are likely to see an increase in cases.”
Luz said there’s been “no scientific evidence to support the premise that Covid Is spread while eating at a restaurant, so limiting hours would not seem to be a logical step to curb the spread. House parties and large gatherings where individuals choose not to socially distance and not to wear masks is where there has been evidence of spread. Individuals have to make a more conscious decision to follow the established guidelines so we all get through this together.”
Martha’s Vineyard hasn’t remained immune to the virus, either.
Dukes County, which includes the Vineyard and Elizabeth Islands, had recorded 65 positive cases as of Wednesday, according to the state Department of Public Health. At least 52 of those cases were from the Vineyard, according to local officials.
Infectious disease specialists have warned that summer tourism hubs such as the Vineyard and Nantucket, where the populations grow exponentially during the peak season, pose risks amid the health crisis.
“Yes, summer tourism is a big potential source of COVID spikes in areas like Nantucket and the Vineyard,” said Eleanor J. Murray, an assistant professor of epidemiology at Boston University, in an email Thursday. “It’s risky for both visitors and residents for tourism to continue during this pandemic.”
But Stephen J. Visco, chairman of the Nantucket Board of Health, said at Thursday’s meeting that he felt the order on an early closing for some restaurants could help protect public safety.
“I believe that it’s going to help,” he said, “Any way we can help is fine with me.”