ACADIA NAT’L PARK — Because of recently relaxed COVID-19 rules on physical distancing, , and they will be covering more of the eastern side of Mount Desert Island.
But there will be no bus service to Southwest Harbor and Tremont, nor to Northeast Harbor, Seal Harbor or Somesville in the town of Mount Desert.
Starting more than six months ago, Downeast Transportation, which operates the Island Explorer system, developed routes and schedules for 2021 to comply with the CDC requirements at the time. That resulted in eliminating several bus routes and shortening others.
“In addition to requiring masks, the social distancing requirements only allowed up to about 12 passengers per bus, compared to 43 [including 13 standing in the aisle] in a normal year,” John Kelly, management assistant at Acadia told the Acadia Advisory Commission on Monday.
“That meant we needed roughly three buses to carry the same number of people as one bus in the past.”
Because of the reduced bus capacity, Downeast Transportation planned for “more frequent service on the key routes that serve the most riders for the cost of running the system,” Kelly said.
Last week, the CDC issued relaxed rules for public transportation that will allow up to 30 passengers on Island Explorer buses. In response to that, Downeast Transportation has extended a few of the planned routes and increased the frequency of service on some.
The Eden Street route will be extended to the Oceanarium to serve the motels and campgrounds along State Route 3. Another bus route will be extended to include a stop at Blackwoods Campground.
Town officials and business owners in Southwest Harbor and Tremont recently asked the park and Downeast Transportation to reconsider the decision not serve those towns this season.
Ben Worcester, who represents Southwest Harbor on the Acadia Advisory Commission, asked why, with the loosening of bus capacity rules, the western side of the island is still being left out.
“Even with all the changes that are happening, that only frees up a few buses,” Kelly said. “And we are adding those to the shortest routes to serve the most people going into the park.”
Paul Murphy, executive director of Downeast Transportation, said Southwest Harbor and Tremont aren’t the only towns where service is being eliminated this year. With the exception of a stop at Blackwoods Campground in Otter Creek, there will be no bus service into Mount Desert.
“In order to operate those routes as we have in the past, we would need 13 buses, and we don’t have 13 or even any [extra] buses,” Murphy said. “To just put a bus on the road in those places would do more harm than good because people would expect that they will be served. And we would leave people standing and waiting for buses for hours at a time, even if we were able to put one bus on each route.”
Kelly said Downeast Transportation also would need to hire and train more drivers for the Island Explorer season that starts June 23. He said the company hired 100 drivers earlier this year, but that number has dropped to 83.
Campgrounds fully opening
The campgrounds in Acadia – two on MDI and one on the Schoodic Peninsula – are expected to be open at full capacity soon.
“Because of the need for additional restroom cleaning, we were going to go with a reduced capacity,” Deputy Superintendent Mike Madell told the Advisory Commission. “Cleaning is certainly still important, but we no longer have that requirement because we now know that transmission [of COVID-19] is not as closely tied to surfaces as through the air. So, we are opening the campgrounds more and more.
“The Schoodic Woods campground is getting close to being fully open,” Madell said. “As we were thinking we might be under capacity limits at Seawall, we saw a good opportunity to do some repairs on restrooms there. So, until we get that work done, we can’t open Seawall to capacity, but that’s coming.
“With Blackwoods, we’re not at full capacity there but will be moving towards that. Our big hang–up there is the staffing that’s necessary to clean the restrooms. We were not successful in hiring as many folks as we would have liked to this year.”
Also because of a shortage of staff, the park’s information center at the Village Green in Bar Harbor is not open this year.