ELLSWORTH — No cruise ships with more than 50 passengers. Required 14-day quarantine for those coming from out of state. The plans for reopening Maine’s economy are likely to have an outsize effect on the state’s tourist sector, Governor Janet Mills acknowledged at a press briefing on Tuesday afternoon.
“There will be losses, inevitable losses,” Mills said. “The whole country is facing this.”
Mills announced Tuesday that the state will phase in its reopening on a month-by-month basis, in four stages, with the first stage beginning in May, the second in June, the third in July and August and the fourth at an undetermined time.
The plans could change at any time, Mills warned, if cases of COVID-19 appear to be rising. The state had 1,040 confirmed cases as of Tuesday afternoon, including 51 deaths. Hancock County had 10 confirmed cases among residents, seven of whom have recovered and one who had been hospitalized.
Mills announced on Tuesday that the stay-safe-at-home order will extend through May 31, allowing residents to leave their homes for essential activities such as grocery shopping and exercising, and will overlap with the first stage of reopening, scheduled to start on Friday.
During the first stage, several types of businesses, including barber shops, hair salons, movie theaters and auto dealerships, will be able to start opening with certain safety measures and some restrictions in place, depending on the business. Drive-in religious services and golf courses will also be open. Outdoor guiding such as fishing and hunting will be allowed and some state parks that had closed will reopen.
In the first stage, gatherings of more than 10 people will be prohibited and anyone entering or returning to Maine will be required to quarantine for 14 days. Those who can work from home should continue to do so, and Mainers will be required to wear cloth face coverings in places where social distancing isn’t possible.
Stage 2, which is set to start on June 1, allows gatherings of up to 50 people and keeps in place the 14-day quarantine for anyone entering the state. Some fitness centers, restaurants and retail stores will be allowed to reopen. The second stage also would allow lodging, campgrounds and day camps for Maine residents and those who have met the 14-day quarantine requirement to reopen.
Stage 3, tentatively scheduled to begin July 1 and continue through August, “contemplates maintaining the prohibition on gatherings of more than 50 people and other Stage 1 and Stage 2 restrictions,” including the quarantine period, according to a press release. In Stage 3, bars, outdoor recreation such as charter boats and boat excursions might be allowed to open, as would spas, tattoo parlors, massage facilities and other personal services.
The plans make it unlikely that July Fourth celebrations will go forward, although Mills said she would re-examine the stages in May and June. “There’s that inevitable congregation of people that brings a lot of people from other states and other areas.”
“People are understandably livid,” Eben Salvatore, operations manager for Bar Harbor Hotels, the group of local hotels owned by the Walsh family, said Tuesday evening. July and August account for 60-75 percent of the annual revenue for many seasonal businesses, he said, and “we were already hobbled to the point that people weren’t going to make it.”
Some of the group’s hotels may not open June 1 if they’re allowed in-state visitors only, he said.
“You can’t say for sure that letting people from New York vacation here is going to cost people their lives,” Salvatore said. “But I can guarantee you canceling our summer season will cost people their lives and their livelihoods.”
Salvatore is hopeful that the plan could still change.
“There’s time to change, amend or clarify,” he said. “But to suggest businesses can do without July and August is not accurate.”
The Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce is urging Mills to reconsider the restrictions. In a statement issued Wednesday, the chamber’s Board of Directors said “the financial impact” of the plan “will deliver a catastrophic blow to many small businesses, families and employees that depend on hosting visitors.” Those businesses “deserve the chance to provide a safe visitor experience that will give us the opportunity to survive.”
Gretchen Wilson, director of the Ellsworth Area Chamber of Commerce, said in an email that the phased reopening was “unexpected,” and that there are many questions left unanswered.
“Hancock County is particularly vulnerable,” Wilson said. “With the playground of New England; Acadia National Park in our backyards, the tourism season is THE single economic driver. To say I am concerned for our businesses would be an understatement.”
Shifting marketing toward Maine residents, many of whom have taken an economic hit, will be a challenge, said Andrew Geel, who owns the Thornhedge Inn in Bar Harbor. His parents own the nearby Ann’s White Columns Inn, Cleftstone Manor and The Elmhurst Inn.
“We’re going to be marketing towards people that live in Maine,” he said. “But a lot of people have taken an economic hit. I don’t see too many bartenders from Portland coming up to stay for the weekend.”
Geel said he’s not expecting more than 50 percent occupancy for any part of the season and that overall for the year, he would be looking at 10 to 20 percent occupancy for the year.
But Geel said he doesn’t blame the Governor for implementing the restrictions. He compared the state’s action to firefighters working to save a building. “The hose is spraying water all over my customers, but you can’t blame the firefighter.”
Mills said Tuesday that the state does not have plans to provide economic relief to seasonal businesses that will be affected by a severely curtailed summer season, but that she hopes the federal government will extend some of the programs it has put in place, including the Paycheck Protection Program.
“Economically we don’t have a plan,” Mills said. “We don’t have a plan to compensate the businesses that are going to inevitably lose some of the regular tourist business during this upcoming season.” But, she added, “I’m not sure how else to limit out-of-state travel into Maine that we’ve all heard about. Especially coming from those areas that are now, at least, a high incidence of COVID-19 — Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut — they have very high incidence of COVID-19 and it’s really difficult to not quarantine people coming from those states, whether they’re coming to an Airbnb, to a restaurant, to a hotel, to a motel.”
Heather Johnson, commissioner of the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development, acknowledged that many visitors don’t stay long enough to observe a quarantine and also stay for vacation. The average length of stay for visitors to Acadia, according to the National Park Service, is between three and four days.
“A lot of people don’t come for the full 14 days,” Johnson said. “We would certainly like to find creative solutions that prioritize keeping people safe but also allow for people to have access to some of these tourism assets that we find so valuable.”
She said the department is looking into whether “there are ways to use testing and will testing capacity allow us to utilize that as one of the levers that will allow us to open up the hospitality and tourism sector a little bit more broadly,” but said quarantine is currently the best option.
As Mills put it on Tuesday: “We’re living in a different normal now.”
Liz Graves contributed to this report.