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Sunshine, sugar cones — and fear — as a strange summer dawns on old Cape Cod

‘We’re just in survival mode now’

Catherine Ellis, 15, of Marston Mils, (right) took a customer's order at Four Seas Ice Cream in Centerville.
Catherine Ellis, 15, of Marston Mils, (right) took a customer's order at Four Seas Ice Cream in Centerville.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

CENTERVILLE — The little ice cream shop — a picture-postcard of a place amid sand dunes and salty air — has been serving cool summertime confections for generations now, compiling colorful vignettes for a sweet local history book all its own.

In the 1970s, a dark limousine carrying legendary comedian Bob Hope routinely pulled into the parking lot of Four Seas Ice Cream after he had finished another performance at the nearby Cape Cod Melody Tent.

In 1986, when Caroline Kennedy married Edwin Schlossberg, the menu for their Cape Cod country-club rehearsal dinner called for spinach salad, sliced tenderloin, and peach ice cream from Four Seas — the favorite flavor of the mother of the bride, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

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And now, the quaint blue-trimmed ice cream shop in this Barnstable village is writing its latest chapter, one that has nothing to do with sultry summertime hot-fudge sundaes, or its to-die-for mocha chip sugar cones.

“We’re just in survival mode now,’’ owner Doug Warren told me the other day as we sat out back of his shop at a shaded picnic table.

“I’m worried about everything. I’m worried about my fellow business people who I know. You’re trying to make ends meet. You’re cutting payroll. You’re trying to adjust things.’’

Welcome to the summer of 2020. Forget kaleidoscopic kites and soaring sea gulls. There is something darker in the air now. It’s called anxiety. It feels like fear.

They are the baleful byproducts of COVID-19, the deadly pandemic that has become a global scourge and threatens to cast a cloud over Cape Cod’s summer the likes of which even the most diabolical meteorologist could not conjure.

“I think it’s very sad,’’ said Peggy Foley, 85, of East Falmouth, as she approached the ice cream stand for a pre-holiday treat under a warm springtime sun. “I’m glad these places are open. I’m not sure when I’ll go back to the beach. I’m not sure when I’ll go to a restaurant. I’m very worried.’’

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Worried? Who isn’t? Warren surely is.

He’s the keeper of a local and family institution that once upon a time housed a blacksmith shop. It opened in 1934 and by the time Warren’s dad — Richard Warren — began working there in 1956 when he was a student a Boston University, it had developed long lines of loyal customers.

And it built a legacy of reliable summertime jobs for local high school and college kids who learned about hard work, good service, lunch counter camaraderie, and that feeling that comes when you find yourself part of something special.

Their pictures are in collages all over the walls now, photographic keepsakes of the kids that Warren’s father recruited after collecting recommendations from the teachers he worked with as a local high school guidance counselor.

“Being a school teacher, he was like: ‘Well, I can just go down to one of the rooms and ask: Who would you want waiting on you,’ ’’ said Warren, 57, recalling his father’s recruiting technique. “So that’s how it started.’’

And that tradition continues. Warren, who had dreams of life as an architect and once sold computer software to engineers, is the recruiter now.

He’s the one working seven days a week, 12 hours a day. He’s the one making sure the butterfat content in his ice cream is a perfect 14 percent. He’s the latest steward of a family tradition, and these times are testing him.

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His wife, Peggy, balances the books. “She’s super smart,’’ he said. “We’re constantly bouncing ideas off of each other, trying to figure out what we can do and what we can’t do.’’

They’re churning out 2,000 gallons of ice cream a week. Their yearly sales measure about $800,000.

“We’re trying to provide a service to the neighborhood and to bring a smile to the faces of our customers,’’ he said. “We’ve always brought smiles to faces, but I think it’s even more important now to continue some kind of normalcy to the world.’’

His young staff feels that, too. They know they are part of something that feels more like family than an ice cream factory. And they know the invisible danger that swims on the warm springtime breeze at the edge of a new summer.

“I’m a little worried about what’s going to happen,’’ said Ben Poepsel, a 19-year-old student at the University of Rhode Island who is beginning his fifth summer at Four Seas. “I’m a little worried that people are going to be wary about coming back down here this summer to support our economy.’’

There are traffic cones and blue plastic chains in the parking lot, directing customers to their socially distanced path to the service counter. There are $7 frappes on the menu. The list of ice creams run from vanilla and chocolate to maple walnut and black raspberry.

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Like Poepsel, Ellen Adams, is a 19-year-old Four Seas manager from Centerville. And, like him, she is worried about what the summer of 2020 will hold for her, her friends, and her job.

“We’re just hoping the customers are going to be patient and understanding and appreciative of all the measures that we have in place here to protect not only them, but also the employees who are working here,’’ said Adams. “Everyone has been wearing a mask and if they’re not, we ask them politely to put one on.’’

Their watchword is caution. Their motto? Safety first.

“There are a lot of small businesses that depend on the summer tourism,’’ Ellen Adams said, taking a break from her afternoon work regimen. “It’s nerve-wracking for everyone on Cape. It’s a really tight community. Small businesses support small businesses. And everyone’s nervous about whether this summer will go well. Or not.’’

That’s describes Doug Warren’s state of mind precisely.

He’s employing 40 kids this summer. He’s scooping ice cream from his walk-in freezer where the temperature is 40 below zero. A medium cone costs $5. A banana split is $9.95.

As he looks around the place, he points to the mementos accumulated from a lifetime — actually two lifetimes — of work.

There’s a bank check on the wall from Jackie Onassis. There’s a framed poem that testifies to the magic and beauty of Cape Cod. If you listen closely, you can almost hear Patti Page singing in the background.

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“If you’re fond of sand dunes and salty air. Quaint little villages here and there. You’re sure to fall in love with old Cape Cod.’’

But old Cape Cod is gone now.

New Cape Cod is where people like Doug Warren are facing a summer like no other. A summer few will forget.

“I can almost see it being down overall by 50 percent from what we did last year,’’ Warren said.

“I think May and June are going to be down significantly. I’m hoping by July lots of things have been ironed out and people have relaxed and the temperature is coming up, which helps in killing the virus. So I’m hoping people are going to get out and they’re going to be antsy to get out there. But we’ll see.’’

This is what survival mode looks like.

This is the message now greeting customers at his walk-up window: “No Mask. No Service!’’

It’s all part of the latest summertime forecast for this new off-key version of Cape Cod, the one that, suddenly, you may not be so sure to fall in love with.


Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can reached at thomas.farragher@globe.com.