Wednesday was a historically grim day on Martha’s Vineyard.

The skies were leaden, the wind was biting and rain was in the forecast, again. Just after noon, an ominous stay-at-home order chimed on cell phones all over the Island and commerce, what was left of it, ground to a halt.

Diner owner Gina Stanley is still cooking for the Island, in concert with Vineyard restaurants, IGI and others. Pay what you can; all proceeds go to support her staff. — Jeanna Shepard

The pandemic’s pall extended well beyond our shores — a quarter of the world’s population was now under lockdown.

Still, there were flickers of hope.

The Art Cliff diner in Vineyard Haven was one of them. Out front, the American flag was waving, signaling the eatery was open for business, a reminder of the normalcy that once was.

A handwritten sign invited passersby to get food, for themselves or for someone they know, “For a donation, if you can.”

Other handwritten signs listed the day’s specials, with drawings of hearts strewn in. The regular menu was posted beneath a sign reading “Enjoy today.” On the deck was a tupperware container, with a hole in the lid and a sign reading “Donations for staff.” Next to it sat a smiley face vase with bright yellow flowers.

The usually bustling dining room was silent, the tables and chairs were gone. Employee Amalia Grosu delivered an order to the only car in the windswept parking lot.

This is the new normal at the Art Cliff.

Owner Gina Stanley is one of a handful of chefs using their culinary skills and indefatigable energy to help feed the locked-down Island population.

She was wearing a mask when she answered the restaurant back door. No one besides herself, her boyfriend and Ms. Grosu were allowed inside.

“I’m not letting anybody in,” she said. “I had a customer step inside this morning with no mask and I yelled to get out of here. Then I had to scrub everything down again. I’m also giving food to the hospital staff so I want to be extra careful.”

We agreed it would be best to talk by phone. As I turned away, she insisted I take some food, and she wouldn’t take no for an answer. She handed me containers of mac and cheese and black bean soup, her hands red and chapped from constant scrubbing and dishwashing.

A short while later, in a candid and refreshingly upbeat conversation, Ms. Stanley spoke about the importance of improvisation and the necessity of compassion to get us through these dark days.

“I want people to understand it’s not just me being generous,” she said emphatically. “There are Island companies that carry a lot of restaurants over the winter. If I had to pay every bill that I owe, I couldn’t stay open.”

She said a growing number of Island businesses and organizations are stepping into the breach.

“It’s amazing how much stuff finds its way here when I’m not looking,” she said. “Cronig’s Market has donated. [Island Grown Initiative] has dropped off containers and food to process so they can put it in their freezers for the eldery and food pantry. The museum, where I volunteer, has donated containers. It’s only the first week so we’re all trying to figure it out.”

She was particularly effusive about the generosity of Adam Bresnick, owner of Island Food Products. “Adam does a lot for the community and he carries a lot of restaurants,” she said. “I’m sure restaurants owe him a [lot] of money and now they won’t be able to pay him. And they won’t be ordering because they’re closed.”

On Wednesday Ms. Stanley was flying solo in the kitchen. Ms. Grosu took orders over the phone and delivered them to the improvised takeout window or to waiting cars. Customers pay by putting cash in the bucket or by credit card over the phone, the preferred method of ordering. About 80 per cent of the Art Cliff menu is currently available. “I’ll have to wing it sometimes, substitute blueberries for strawberries, kale for arugula, that kind of thing,” Ms. Stanley said. So far, they’ve averaged about 20 meals per day but she’s hoping business will pick up. “People better come and order food or I’m going to be 500 pounds by the time this is over,” she joked.

Meal delivery at the hospital from Art Cliff. — Jeanna Shepard

All donations for Art Cliff meals go to support the Art Cliff staff.

“I have nine envelopes with people’s names and I split the donations among everyone that works here,” Ms. Stanley said. “I want my guys in the kitchen to get paid until they can collect unemployment. One of them has three kids at home.”

Reactions have run the gamut when customers find out payment is on a donation only basis.

“People are taken aback. A lot of them don’t get it, like they’re in shock,” she said, amused. “A lot of people pay the price on the menu. Some people pay more. We’ve had people drive by and put money in the bucket even though they didn’t get food. But if people can’t pay, I don’t want it to be awkward for them. I want people to feel comfortable ordering food for themselves or for their neighbor or someone they know is in need. Sometimes people feel guilty, which is silly. I’ve been in that position many times and people have helped me, just like Island Food Products and Net Result are helping me now.”

On Tuesday the restaurant was closed, but Ms. Stanley still cooked for a young man who stopped by.

“I could tell by the way he was asking that he didn’t have money,” she said. “I said ‘tell me what you want, I’ll cook it for you.’ He came here for a construction job and now the job isn’t happening and his housing isn’t available. He deserved some kindness. He was incredibly grateful.”

For the foreseeable future, Art Cliff will be open from nine to five, most days.

“The other day it was rainy and cold and I was really tired so I put on Facebook ‘not coming in today, I’ll see you tomorrow.’ I have to keep true to an Art Cliff tradition,” Ms. Stanley said, laughing. “But I’ll be here most of the time.”

Ms. Stanley’s tone shifted when she addressed the growing tension between Islanders and the seasonal residents who’ve come here to ride out the crisis.

“People need to be kind and be quiet,” she said. “Three weeks ago, a lot of Islanders were coming home from their vacation and they didn’t self quarantine for two weeks, they didn’t wear a mask and gloves 24/7. So many of my customers that were summer people years ago are now here practically year round. I don’t like the us-against-them mentality.”

Ms. Stanley has family and friends in New York. She’s pitching in to help there as well. “My apartment in New York is directly across the street from Presbyterian Hospital. I called the hospital and asked if they could use it and a couple of doctors took it. They were so happy, they couldn’t believe it,” she said. “A lot of my family is in the medical field. It’s terrifying there. We’re really lucky to be here.”

Gazette contributor Barry Stringfellow lives in Edgartown.