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June 23, 2020

Maine tourism industry ratchets up pressure on state; indoor seating for bars delayed

Photo / Maureen Milliken COVID-19 outbreaks that began in bars in other states have spurred Maine to delay indoor bar service, which had been tentatively targeted for July 1.

Tourism industry groups from Ogunquit to Bar Harbor ratcheted up the pressure Monday on the state to reopen more quickly, the same day the state announced that indoor seating for bars, a staple of Maine's tourism economy, won't happen July 1. 

Among the push-back efforts, HospitalityMaine members held a rally in Ogunquit Monday to protest restrictions on out-of-state overnight visitors. Bar Harbor businesses wrote an open letter to Gov. Janet Mills asking her to implement an $800 million recovery plan proposed by the industry June 13. And a group of business owners filed a Freedom of Access Act request for all public records related to the state's required 14-day quarantine and COVID-19 testing for visitors.

Meanwhile, the state made official what Maine CDC Director Nirav Shah had talked about last week — indoor seating for the state's bars won't happen before the busy Fourth of July weekend, citing increased concern that bars are a perfect storm for COVID-19 spread. 

Representatives from across Maine's tourism industry — including lodging, restaurants, retail and recreation — have been increasingly vocal about the state's measures to slow the spread of COVID-19, which they say has devastated this year's summer tourist season. The industry, which generates $6.9 billion a year, makes most of its money during the summer and is made of mostly small independent businesses.

The state shutdown and reopening plan have been particularly hard on the lodging industry. Out-of-state visitors, except those from New Hampshire and Vermont, are required to either quarantine for 14 days in-state or get a COVID-19 test that shows they are negative for the virus within 72 hours of their stay in Maine. 

The industry has lost 42,600 hospitality jobs and 12,000 retail jobs, either temporarily or permanently this year. The American Hotel and Lodging Association said the shutdown could cost the state as much as $65.9 million in lost tax revenue this year.

Bars outdoor-only for now

Bars present an elevated health risk, as shown by outbreaks in those that have reopened across the country, so the state is postponing the reopening of indoor service, which had been tentatively targeted for July 1.

“This was a difficult but necessary decision given the increased public health risk and the outbreaks we have seen across the country associated with indoor service,” said Gov. Janet Mills in a news release. “While we believe this is the most prudent step to protect the health and safety of Maine people, we recognize that it will frustrate some businesses and patrons."

She said the administration will work with businesses to help them open for outdoor service to the extent they may be able to. "Meanwhile, we will continue to monitor the prevalence of this deadly virus and take whatever steps necessary to protect people as we continue the gradual reopening process.”

While the announcement came Monday, Shah had said last week a "constellation of factors" prompted the state to re-evaluate the July 1 timeline.

"There are now actual documented outbreaks traced to individuals spending time with one another at bars," he said. Outbreaks in Jacksonville, Fla., and Boise, Idaho, were traced back to individual COVID-infected patrons. The close proximity, length of time patrons spend, and fact that most wouldn't be wearings masks as they drink, combine to make bars susceptible to spread, he said.

Bars can still provide outdoor seated service, and Mills said the Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages and Lottery Operations will work closely and promptly with businesses to establish or expand outside capacity.

Public records request

The Work For Me group, made up of 38 Maine hotel, restaurant and retail business owners, has filed a Freedom of Access Act request asking the Office of the Governor, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Maine Center for Disease Control and the Department of Economic and Community Development to make available all public records pertaining to the scientific and public health basis for Maine’s quarantine and testing requirement.

The request asks that the information include employment, economic, or other adverse effects of quarantine and testing considered in the decisions; all communications regarding quarantine and testing; and all Quarantine Task Force and Committee agendas, minutes, notes and recordings pertaining to the quarantine and testing requirement.

"The group of hospitality businesses is collectively taking this action because, despite many requests for clarification, the state has not provided the information and data to support the conclusion that quarantine and testing requirements are necessary," the group said in a news release.

The group also renewed its request that restrictions be lifted, given the job and revenue loss figures of this spring.

Demand restrictions be lifted

Innkeepers from York County, members of HospitalityMaine, held a news conference in Ogunquit Monday demanding the restrictions on the lodging industry be lifted.

Innkeepers called the quarantine and testing rules "unworkable, expensive and most importantly — unattainable."

They said if the testing rule was scrapped, they could salvage the summer. The rule, "puts the lodging industry in a position to fail right out of the gate,” said Greg Dugal, government affairs officer for HospitalityMaine. The organization represents more than 1,000 members in the lodging and restaurant industry. 

"Our lodging members are telling us 'We can't survive,'" he said, adding that Maine is the only state "with these draconian measures put upon one industry."

Innkeepers said potential guests from other states say they can't get tests. A group of lodging industry representatives conducted a "grassroots COVID-19 testing survey" in states that are major parts of Maine's overnight market, group said. Their results revealed that in 10 states, from Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey to Pennsylvania, more than nine out of 10 test requests were refused. More details of the study weren't immediately available.

“Many [potential visitors] have indicated that since Maine doesn't want them, they are headed to Cape Cod or New Hampshire,” said Jean Ginn Marvin, owner of the Nonantum Resort in Kennebunkport. “One of my concerns with this scenario is that in future years people will head back to their new favorite vacation spot because that spot was so welcoming this year when Maine wasn’t."

The Nonantum has had more than 1,000 cancellations since the beginning of June, mostly from residents of Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey, said Ginn Marvin. General Manager Tina Hewett-Gordon told Mainebiz that it would normally be at 75% capacity this time of year, but is at 6%.

Allyson Cavaretta, owner of the Meadowmere Resort in Ogunquit, said, "With the economic impact these hurdles are having, six figure losses already, they may end up being quite right. We must be given a real chance to succeed. Our communities are counting on us to support them." 

Nancy White, managing director for Cliff House in Cape Neddick, said the inn has lost $3.5 million revenue in June. “Every day that is lost due to the toughest travel restrictions in the continental U.S. is a sad day filled with continued loss of jobs, homes, businesses and livelihoods,” she said. “The decisions made today will impact generations of Maine families to come. Lift the quarantine and the testing and allow Maine to flourish, not diminish."

Bar Harbor appeal to Mills

In an open letter to Mills, Bar Harbor business owners said, "Our state is sinking and we are writing to ask for your help in saving us."

The business owners ask that Maine adopt visitor requirements similar to the other New England states, as well as adopt the Hospitality, Tourism, and Retail Recovery Plan that the Maine Hospitality and Tourism Alliance presented June 12. The plan, which would be paid for from the state's $1.25 billion in CARES Act money, not only offers grants to businesses, but also has provisions for child care, health care, training and more.

"We believe that these two things will go a long way to saving Maine’s economy, it will help us minimize the risk of COVID19, and it will make sure that we are all here when the pandemic is over," the letter said.

Even with reopening, sales in Bar Harbor, which is the gateway to Acadia National Park, are down 70-95%, the letter says. The park draws 3.5 million visitors a year.

"We all understand why it was necessary to take the actions you took in March and April and we supported your early response to COVID19," it says. "We have all worked hard at ensuring our customers distance and wear masks; we have installed plexiglass shields, sanitizer, and so much more. In short we have taken responsibility for ourselves, our employees, and our customers. Every day we look at our empty tables and sidewalks and wonder how our businesses are going to make it. We wonder how our employees are going to heat their homes come January."

"There isn’t much time left to keep an awful situation from getting much worse," it says.

While DHHS commissioner Jeanne Lambrew said Monday the state's quarantine rules are similar to other states, particularly Vermont, the letter asks that they be more on a par with Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Hampshire, which all ask visitors to quarantine before coming to the state.

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June 23, 2020
I am a family of four in North Carolina. We want to come to Maine this summer as we have many times before to enjoy the beautiful sights and people. We are having to cancel our trip and spending despite being willing to follow reasonable precautions. How can we quarantine for 14 days on a 5 day vacation? This one size fits all quarantine requirements is not fair or friendly to those from states outside the Northeast where the problem is not as prevalent as NYC etc. Please lift the bans for other states and let us enjoy ourselves in your state.
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