And the number is?

Thu, 02/04/2021 - 5:45pm

Many more people seem to be spending the winter on Block Island, or just visiting for the first time. The uptick in people at the grocery store and the Transfer Station, or walking on the beach is palpable.

So just how many people are here?

It’s a question asked every year on February 2, Groundhog Day, and has been since the 1960s.

First-timers may have noticed that the island has a few quirky traditions. One of those is the Groundhog Day Census. For some magical reason the census ends up being a surprisingly accurate count of the winter, aka yearround population of the island – more accurate, many say, than the official United States Census conducted every 10 years.

Just how is the Groundhog Day Census conducted? For years locals have gathered at a pub on February 2, forming teams that go neighborhood through neighborhood, diligently counting, house by house. If you are here, you are counted. Your actual residence isn’t important – only your physical presence. Hotels are called for how many are staying overnight. The ferry parking lot is scanned for those who are not. Technology has, of course, made the task easier, with winter dwellers encouraged to call or email the counting team.

This year the Census was conducted at Old Island Pub in accordance with Gaffett family tradition. There were six teams and eight official “counters,” some of whom have been doing it for decades – especially Maggie Kent. These people have an institutional knowledge of not only who lives where, but who may have been stuck off-island because of Monday and Tuesday’s storm and the cancellation of ferries to and from the mainland.

If there is an unknown, there are usually plenty of people milling around the pub who can be consulted. Usually, the occasion is the perfect excuse for a mid-winter party. This year, of course, due to Covid-19 restrictions, the occasion was somewhat subdued, and the counting started early. There were workers involved with the cable reburial project, on a “shore day,” enjoying a meal and hanging out at the pub. They too shall be counted.

Each year there is a commemorative T-shirt, usually with an appropriate cartoon. This year’s shirt was designed by OIP Manager Paige Gaffett. Her design pays tribute to the absurdity of the year that was. It’s sure to be a collectible one.

Part of the fun is guessing what the total count will be. This year, 1094 “groundhogs” were counted. Almost a population explosion, and unlike Punxsutawney Phil, they didn’t see their shadows.