In this May 25, 2020, file photo, a sign advises that protective masks are required on the usually busy Commercial Street in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Credit: Michael Dwyer / AP

President Joe Biden and other political leaders are playing catch-up as they push for more vaccine mandates: The proprietors of Provincetown, Massachusetts, are way ahead of them.

In the rainbow-festooned resort town at Cape Cod’s tip, patrons already need vaccine cards to watch drag shows at Pilgrim House; to attend the afternoon tea dances at the Boatslip Beach Club; to get a beer at the Provincetown Brewing Co.; even to get a facial at the Jonathan Williams Salon and Spa.

Provincetown, unhappy home to one of the first major delta variant outbreaks in a highly vaccinated U.S. population, imposed an indoor mask mandate this week, days before Washington, D.C., and Kansas City, Missouri. Its business owners are at the vanguard of private efforts to build back better COVID defenses, as Biden announced his latest plan to boost the nation’s sputtering vaccination campaign.

“I don’t control local government, but I do control my business,” said Ken Horgan, who runs Pilgrim House, which has begun requiring proof of vaccination of all guests at its hotel, restaurants and 180-seat drag shows. At latest count, the Provincetown cluster numbers more than 880 total cases in a town with a summer population of about 60,000.

Grassroots efforts to require proof of vaccination have been emerging for weeks at food and entertainment spots around the country, from restaurants in Atlanta to the just-announced Gramercy Tavern in New York City. But the rise of the delta variant is adding momentum, particularly in spots with large gay populations such as Provincetown and San Francisco.

As of Thursday, more than 500 San Francisco bars were requiring vaccination or a recent negative COVID test. In Provincetown, it’s getting hard to find a nightclub that doesn’t require a vaccine card.

Pushback has been minimal, Horgan said: A half-dozen or so refunds had to be issued to guests who canceled, plus he had to endure some nasty comments. But, “95% of the people are not only willing, but gleeful to show proof,” he said, adding that many in Provincetown are angry at unvaccinated visitors.

The message is simple, he said: “If there’s a vaccine out there, get vaccinated or don’t come here.”

Memories of AIDS-epidemic suffering and death fuel the push for vaccination requirements in LGBTQ venues. At Eagle NYC, a gay bar in Chelsea requiring vaccine proof, co-owner Derek Danton said one man protested outside that the rule was akin to asking people for proof of HIV negativity during the AIDS crisis.

“It’s completely not the same thing,” said Danton, 62. “I wish we’d had a vaccine back then.”

Those who don’t want to show proof now, he said, tend to have been born after the AIDS crisis, when night spots came together to combat HIV with educational materials, condom giveaways and testing referrals. “They feel invincible — they don’t know the impact that virus had on this community because they didn’t live it,” Danton said. “We’re trying to lead by example.”

Is it legal?

In Provincetown, Boatslip managing partner Jill Botway pioneered proof-of-vaccine requirements when she imposed them in late May, two weeks before the club’s afternoon tea dances restarted. As an attorney, she had no doubt the policy was within her rights as a private business owner to refuse entry and service to anyone she chose — so long as she wasn’t discriminating for reasons like race or gender.

Botway appreciates the irony that a business in Provincetown, known for inclusivity, is keeping some people out. “We’re not sitting around looking to exclude people,” she said, “but the point is that I have the right as a private business owner to require people to show me proof of vaccination so I can keep our staff, our guests and our community safe.”

The reaction has been overwhelmingly positive, she said, except for “a few pundits at the front gate.” And the policy has been good for business, including hiring staff and attracting guests. She would like to see a town ordinance requiring businesses to check vaccine cards as customers enter — and endorsement of the idea from government authorities.

$100 checks

For now, federal officials are focused on vaccine requirements for employees. Biden on Thursday announced that all federal workers would need to show proof of vaccination or undergo regular testing, and he urged states to offer $100 incentives for the unvaccinated.

Meanwhile, vaccine requirements are spreading rapidly among private employers. In Provincetown, such provisions are even reaching the rental market: This week, Daniel Escola added a proof-of-vaccine requirement to the listing for the centrally located cottage that he co-owns.

He noticed the Pilgrim House’s new rules and thought such a requirement should — and would — quickly spread. Even the single cottage listing could help keep the town safer, he decided, by turning away unvaccinated people. His partner, Charlie Simas, agreed.

“Because government bureaucracy takes too long, it seems like businesses are taking matters into their own hands and implementing their own rules,” Simas said. “The frustration is that we did everything we were supposed to do, and now we’re taking two steps back because of the unvaccinated people.”

On Thursday, town manager Alex Morse reported the smallest daily increase in cases — 49 — since the outbreak began in early July. Seven people have been hospitalized, but no deaths have been reported.

Story by Carey Goldberg.