BAR HARBOR — The town is asking lodging businesses, including campgrounds and vacation rentals, to close for a few weeks to all but essential travel to protect public safety during the coronavirus emergency.
Lodging businesses are classified as essential under the current state restrictions; the “essential travel” in the local restriction is intended to apply to workers and to people who need to come here to assist a family member, councilors said.
Meeting Monday via videoconference, the Town Council approved a statement suspending “all occupancy for transient accommodations, vacation rentals and campgrounds for nonessential travel effective April 8-April 30.”
The statement was approved in a split 4-3 vote, following extensive debate about whether such a move was necessary, as many lodging businesses have closed or announced plans to delay opening.
The suspension was proposed by Councilor Gary Friedmann, who said the intent was not to discriminate against anyone, but to protect public health.
“There’s no question that having people coming into our community from high-risk areas increases the risk that we’re going to have exposure to the disease,” Art Blank, CEO of Mount Desert Island Hospital, told the council. “There are all kinds of reasons why it’s to our benefit if folks are not traveling during this period.”
Councilors Jeff Dobbs, Friedmann, Joe Minutolo and Jill Goldthwait supported the action and Councilors Matt Hochman, Stephen Coston and Erin Cough dissented.
Hochman said he was uncomfortable with a mandate and would prefer to see businesses voluntarily close down or delay opening. “We are getting a lot of voluntary compliance,” he said.
Coston, who owns an inn that’s one of few lodging businesses that are currently open, said there are fewer than 100 guest rooms available in town and those are running at 10-20 percent occupancy.
“Would I be opening right now if I wasn’t already open? No way,” he said.
Representatives of both of the large hotel companies that operate here, Witham Family Hotels and Bar Harbor Hotels (known to many as Ocean Properties), have said they have no plans to open hotels that are not already open until sometime in May at the earliest.
David Witham of Witham Family Hotels told councilors in an email Monday morning that his company had two hotels currently open; one of them, the Bar Harbor Grand Hotel, has since closed. The other, the Atlantic Oceanside, has only one of its four lodging buildings currently open.
“The vast majority of stays at the Atlantic Oceanside are contractors working at The Jackson Laboratory, the ferry terminal, and other construction projects, as well as visiting hospital and laboratory workers,” Witham wrote. Those guests are likely not shopping at the grocery store, he noted; many are making use of room service for meals.
Hochman said some vacation rental hosts have been advertising their properties for rent on Airbnb and HomeAway as “Coronavirus specials” and “safe havens” during the pandemic emergency. Those sites are offering refunds for cancellations of already-booked stays, but some residents are concerned that rentals still being advertised put the community at risk.
Cough said she was concerned about the apparent preoccupation among some residents with looking for out-of-state license plates as evidence that people who shouldn’t be here, are here.
“If there is a case (of COVID-19) that comes here, are we going to mob-style go after that one person who may or may not be the carrier?” she said.
“This isn’t about the dollar, this is about our town and how we’re going to treat citizens in our town.”
Alf Anderson, the executive director of the Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce, said “this is going to be a difficult season no matter how you slice it. There seems to be some unity out there that if we can take a punch in the face in April, to hopefully recover later in the season,” it will be worth it.
Members of the local business community, Goldthwait agreed, “have been heroic about saying, ‘I’ll support what you do and maybe we’ll be able to salvage part of the season.’”
The agenda for the meeting, which was published Friday, also included discussion of stopping “new essential services from opening for the season,” but councilors decided not to pursue that policy.
“If people are deciding Bar Harbor doesn’t want them here, we’re jeopardizing our community going forward,” Cough said.
The state ban on dine-in restaurant service was extended this week as part of the governor’s executive order. “Any (restaurant) that wants to open only to do take-out should be able to do so,” Goldthwait said.
The council plans to discuss possible enforcement measures for the lodging suspension at its next meeting, set for Tuesday, April 7.
“It’s hard, because everyone’s terrified,” Eben Salvatore of Bar Harbor Hotels said Tuesday. “We think we’re keeping (people) away and that we’re OK. If we change our habits and act like we all have it, we’ll do a much better job of mitigating the effects.
“People can’t even imagine businesses being open, or imagine (what it will be like) when the virus is here, but the two eventually are going to intersect. In a small town like ours we ought to be able to be unified.”
CORRECTION: The print version of this story misstated Witham Family Hotels’ plan to close the Bar Harbor Grand Hotel. It is closed now and may reopen sometime in May. The Islander apologizes for the error.