Martha’s Vineyard Distilling Company had no choice but to pivot when the pandemic hit. 

They turned in their shot glasses for plastic bottles, and began making hand sanitizer for the island.

As the first and only distillery on the small New England island, it took a lot of time, hard work and refining of vodka recipes to get it up and running almost three years ago. The owners, natives of Martha’s Vineyard, were childhood friends with dreams of starting their own successful business. But as the coronavirus health crisis grew, the young company adapted to making a product that was desperately needed. Employees soon realized that their distillery had all the necessary equipment, and a new way to help the community was born. 

“It was the most brilliant and fabulously responsive thing to do for our community,” Nancy Gardella, executive director of Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce, said.  

Martha’s Vineyard Distilling Company is just one of the many small businesses on Martha’s Vineyard and across the world who have had to twist and turn to accommodate the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. According to the results of a Massachusetts survey published in May, businesses on the island are continuing to suffer. Nearly all surveyed businesses reported drops in revenue, foot traffic and staffing through 2020 and into 2021.

Already a year and a half into the chaos, and facing a busy island summer as families flee urban areas and settle on the seashore, these businesses are finding creative ways to stay positive and find purpose.

“I am almost overwhelmed to tears at how inspiring small businesses have been through this,” Gardella said.

Harry O’Connor,  worked his first summer job at the Boneyard Surf Shop on the island, but has been a visitor of Martha’s Vineyard for years. He has seen firsthand, both as a customer and employee, the changes the shop has gone through the past year.

After the summer of 2020, owners of the Boneyard decided it was time to give their brand a makeover, in true pandemic fashion. During the off-season, they reorganized their inventory, created a new line of original apparel and spruced up the in-person store. This summer, they have reaped the benefits.

“You’ll see people walking around with our shirts and you can see the community we’ve built through all of this,” O’Connor said.

Just across the street, antique shop Past and Presents, a Martha’s Vineyard staple for 25 years, has found itself shifting to fit the needs of the pandemic. 

Under normal circumstances, the owners spend their winters in England and Atlanta, buying antiques for the summer season. But during the pandemic, their ordering has been done from home. Changing day-to-day health protocols on the island have brought an air of uncertainty for local businesses, too, Past and Presents co-owner Jane Norton said. The island reinstated mask mandates inside public establishments on Aug. 19. Despite this, the shop door has remained open and willing to do whatever they may need to for their customers.

“All we can do now is try to accommodate everyone in one way or another,” Norton said.

State and local governments are doing their part to try and curb the dire effects of the pandemic on small businesses, as well. Two Martha’s Vineyard towns are currently participating in Massachusetts’ Rapid Recovery Plan Program, which provides economic support and reinforcement tailored to local businesses’ needs during the pandemic. With the program’s assistance, many businesses on the island have been able to stay safe and stay afloat.

As the fall approaches, local businesses face a grim reality. Many hoped that by this time, the pandemic would be fading away. Yet, as vaccine rollout plateaus and a second surge becomes imminent, people are realizing that this is no longer a sprint. It’s a marathon.

“It hasn’t been easy, but people here have made the best of it,” Norton said.