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Updated: June 29, 2020 Focus on Hospitality & Tourism

Businesses in popular tourist destination strategize to survive Bar Harbor bust

Photo / Laurie Schreiber Bar Harbor Bicycle Shop co-owner Joe Minutolo says lack of visitors caused rentals to plummet. Demand for new-bike sales are up, but they’re hard to come by due to a worldwide shortage.

As of mid-June, bike rentals were more or less non-existent at the Bar Harbor Bicycle Shop.

The year-round store, an institution started 42 years ago by brothers Joe and Al Minutolo, typically bustles in the summer with tourists aiming to rent bikes and explore Acadia National Park, which lies just a couple of blocks away.

“We should be putting out a pretty good charge of units at this time of year,” says Joe Minutolo, who is also a town councilor. “On Memorial Day weekend, we would have put out everything we’ve got. This Memorial Day weekend, I had one rental.”

Repairs are carrying the business this year. Sales demand is strong, but there’s a worldwide shortage of bicycles.

“Because of the pandemic, people decided, instead of taking mass transportation, they’d buy a bicycle,” Minutolo says. “And a lot of bike parts and bikes come from China, so there was a holdup on production. There are also bicycles sitting on ships that can’t get into port.”

Things are the same all over.

“We have some people coming in. But it’s nothing like it usually is at this time of year,” says Todd Graham, general manager of the Acadia Corp., which owns gift shops in Bar Harbor. “The parking spots are empty. You’ll see a couple of people walking in and out of the shops. But really, the sidewalks are empty.”

At Acadia Hotel and Ivy Manor Inn, over $1.7 million in reservations were cancelled as of mid-June. Co-owner Peter Hastings expects to make it through the year, thanks to cash reserves, a lean operation and mortgage restructuring. Still, “It’s scary to think that we won’t see any income until October of 2021,” he says.

He adds, “But here’s a bigger issue. People don’t necessarily want to travel as much as they used to. And Bar Harbor, not being close to anywhere, becomes a little bit less of a desirable location.”

Brink of closing

“Basically what we’re seeing is not enough visitor traffic to make it worthwhile for most businesses to even open their doors,” says Alf Anderson, executive director of the Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce. “Many have done so. But I heard from a retailer this morning — they’re down 89% compared with last year.”

Photo / Courtesy of Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce
With visitor traffic off sharply, many Bar Harbor businesses cannot even afford to open their doors this season, says Alf Anderson, executive director of the Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce.

Each year, Acadia National Park attracts as many as 3.5 million visitors, many of whom patronize Bar Harbor’s amenities. But Bar Harbor faces the problem of being too remote for most day-trippers. It’s 4 hours and 40 minutes from Boston and eight hours from New York City. The town and other Mount Desert Island communities depend on overnighters.

Tourist interests say the state’s latest reopening plan might benefit southern Maine, but testing requirements will stymie traffic to Bar Harbor. Hotels are seeing massive cancellations. Cruise ships, tour buses and the Island Explorer, a seasonal shuttle, aren’t running. Many businesses are on the brink of closing for the year; some don’t know if they’ll survive at all.

While stores, restaurants and hotels are seeing some customers and some businesses are advertising job openings, the chamber warned that there wouldn’t be enough Maine-based visitors to sustain the hospitality and tourism operations central to Bar Harbor’s economy.

By mid-June, the outlook was dismal, by one account.

“I would say it’s dismal at best,” says Bethany McFarland Reece, co-owner of downtown restaurant Route 66, where patronage is just 5% to 10% of typical levels.

“There are some people here,” she adds. “It remains to be seen how long it will last.”

Bar Harbor Whale Watch, which had 1 million customers last year, was ready for the season but the state’s latest testing requirements caused a “dramatic drop” in what was left of bookings, says Eben Salvatore, MDI operations chief for Ocean Properties, which owns Bar Harbor Whale Watch and four hotels in town.

“If that doesn’t change, it’s likely we won’t be operating our boats this year,” he says.

Two of Ocean Properties’ Bar Harbor hotels are open but occupancy is off 96%.

“People are taking their business elsewhere and they probably won’t be back,” he continues. “We’re losing them forever. The long-term ripple effect goes beyond these few months.”

Says Anderson, “What we’re seeing is a catastrophe.”

Community action

Bar Harbor and other Mount Desert Island communities are coming together in various ways to try to sustain themselves.

The town of Bar Harbor conducted surveys to gauge business and resident concerns. The latest shows that 86% of businesses depend on out-of-state tourism. Half said they would close if the state’s 14-day quarantine continues through July. The surveys helped inform council actions, including creation of a “parklet” program to expand outdoor options for restaurants and retailers; and a letter to Gov. Janet Mills urging her to lift the quarantine.

Share Our Stimulus MDI, a citizen initiative, formed in April to encourage people to share their stimulus checks with island neighbors who need it most, through food pantries and other nonprofits.

In the town of Mount Desert, the Summer Residents Association raised over $800,000 to provide grants to 56 businesses experiencing impacts due to COVID-19. The average grant size was $14,200 and allowed businesses to cover costs such as rent and mortgage.

Healthy Acadia, a Bar Harbor community health nonprofit, and Mount Desert Island Hospital repurposed substance use disorder recovery coaches to create a “social call” system to support vulnerable individuals through the pandemic. The organization ramped up its food security work in response to pressures on the food supply system, as demand quadrupled for its healthy-food access programs.

Pilot testing program

The biggest initiatives come through the Downeast COVID-19 Task Force, a group of community stakeholders convened by Healthy Acadia and the hospital in April and now including Jackson Laboratory, the park, town and chamber of commerce leaders, and state legislators.

The group’s plans include a pilot asymptomatic testing program for front-facing employees, and a facemask distribution program.

Both utilize the hospital’s ability to procure supplies and expand capabilities into communities across MDI, and Jackson Laboratory’s ability to collect and process samples, says Elsie Flemings, Healthy Acadia’s executive director.

Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park leaders holding an online community forum to discuss social and economic concerns around the pandemic.

Pending funding, biweekly asymptomatic tests will be provided to 200 workers — 10% to 15% of front-facing seasonal staff. A funding goal of approximately $210,000 would cover 12 weeks of testing or 1,200 tests overall. The group is looking into a mix of private and public funding. The hospital and JAX are together donating the first 100 tests. The group is working out a process to allow front-facing workers to access the asymptomatic testing program.

JAX has an asymptomatic testing program underway for its own employees, the lab’s executive vice president and COO, Catherine Longley, said during a Bar Harbor Town Council Zoom meeting.

As an asymptomatic testing program for the broader community, the task force believes it’s a first for Maine. The goals are to support physical heath but also demonstrate to potential visitors that MDI is utilizing best practices, notes Flemings.

Reasonable path

“The goals seems to be attainable,” Graham says of the plan. “It seems to be a way to manage the health of the whole workforce, which affects our entire community which, in turn, affects the safety and health of our visitors.”

In June, Anderson sent a letter to the Mills administration to share the plan as an alternative to the state’s alternatives for most out-of-state visitors of a 14-day quarantine or a negative test.

The task force plan, Anderson wrote, “would remove the burden of visitors getting tested and offer a clear way to monitor the health of our community.”

He added, “With the state’s expanded testing capacity, this plan should be scalable statewide and would be a reasonable path to reopening our state’s tourism businesses.”

Out-of-state residents typically account for 90% of Bar Harbor’s visitation business, he says.

“Almost every business in Bar Harbor relies on the visitors that stay in our local lodging establishments,” he said. “If lodgings cannot open, many of our businesses will fail. There is not enough in-state visitation business to support our local businesses.”

The task force is also distributing “ASTM-1” medical-grade masks to MDI employers for their public-facing employees. The masks provide a certain level of protection against aerosols, but don’t take away from the supply of higher-level masks needed by medical providers.

MDI Hospital procured 30,000 ASTM-1s and expects to order as many as 20,000 more throughout the season. Distribution began June12 through MDI town offices and chambers of commerce.

“It sends a really strong message that our priority is to be safe and that we’re taking a proactive stance to prevent spread,” Flemings says of the task force initiatives. “The goal is to support our economy in a healthy, safe way.”

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