BAR HARBOR — The debate over when and how to welcome tourists this season has set business owners who are afraid that their businesses could fail against those who worry that easing restrictions could bring a catastrophic spike in COVID-19 cases.
How to represent local concerns to Augusta, when strong differences of opinion persist about which state actions would be best for Bar Harbor and Mount Desert Island, also remains a contested question.
But elected officials and business leaders are urging cooperation.
“It’s not businesses versus residents,” Councilor Gary Friedmann said at Tuesday’s Town Council meeting. “I would rather see this as a question of, how are we going to get through this together?”
“Now it is time for all of us to step up and reopen our town,” First National Bank CEO Tony McKim wrote to the Town Council Tuesday. “We can do this thoughtfully, and with appropriate risk mitigation, working together. Let’s get this done as a team.”
A task force convened by Mount Desert Island Hospital and Healthy Acadia is studying potential testing systems and other alternatives to requiring visitors arriving from out of state to quarantine for 14 days, according to Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce Director Alf Anderson. The group includes local legislators and representatives of Acadia National Park, Chambers of Commerce and towns.
Governor Janet Mills’ plan for “Restarting Maine’s Economy,” announced last Tuesday, extends the requirement that out-of-state visitors quarantine for 14 days into July and August. That news sent shockwaves through the business community here, with owners of hotels and other lodging businesses saying it would be devastating for them.
“A little more patience in ‘calling the season’ is a fair request,” Bar Harbor Bank & Trust CEO Curtis Simard wrote to councilors. “My belief is that our community should request, if not press for, better clarification of how this declaration can be made so soon and for such a prolonged period of the year … That strategy shifts what has been a calculated and rather successful risk mitigation approach to one of complete risk elimination to this one select, but extremely important, industry (lodging).”
Later last week, clarification arrived from the state Department of Economic and Community Development that the state is working on alternatives to the quarantine requirement for Stage 3 of the reopening plan, expected to be July and August. Lodging businesses had been instructed not to take new reservations for those months; that guidance has since been relaxed.
Councilors said they understood that the state’s plan would need to be somewhat flexible, but they differ on whether it’s better to begin stricter and then loosen rules if possible, or to begin looser and tighten if necessary.
Councilor Joe Minutolo said tightening restrictions once the season is underway would be like trying to get toothpaste back into a tube. Councilor Stephen Coston said he would normally agree, but in the last week he has felt more like the characters in Stephen King’s “The Mist,” who work to stay positive and optimistic against all odds, but help arrives moments too late, after they’ve committed suicide.
“Pessimism hurts us now, badly, while mitigating no risk,” he said. “I think (the state) got the framework largely correct,” but telling visitors in April, who are planning to come in August, that they can’t come seemed like overkill.
McKim noted that local residents have “worked very, very hard to flatten the curve,” pointing out that 9 of the 10 reported Hancock County residents with COVID-19 have recovered. “We have done a great service to our country and state,” he wrote.
Others say they still see many people behaving in ways that put themselves and others at risk.
“Until we can be sure our local population is aware and willing to implement safe practices, there’s no way we can expect tourists to follow suit,” Cyndi Bridges, co-owner of Peekytoe Provisions, wrote to councilors.
The council agreed in a split vote to ask Council Chair Jeff Dobbs and Town Manager Cornell Knight to “request a dialogue” with the Governor’s office “about adjusting the reopening plan to make it more optimistic, more inclusive and more balanced.” Councilors Dobbs, Coston, Friedmann and Minutolo voted in favor of the plan; Matthew Hochman, Jill Goldthwait and Erin Cough were opposed.
Communicating the town’s concerns to Augusta was also one of the goals of a proposed town COVID-19 task force, which the council rejected this week after tabling the idea at its last meeting.
A task force should “advocate to the state on behalf of businesses that may not fit into the one-size-fits-all approach,” Nina St. Germain, the town’s engagement coordinator, wrote in a memo to councilors.
In the absence of a task force, she suggested the council ask the Chamber of Commerce to provide regular recommendations for council consideration “because you value the contribution local businesses make to the town of Bar Harbor and want to work collaboratively to create a positive outcome for Bar Harbor businesses, their families, their employees and the region.”
Councilors said they didn’t want the town to duplicate the efforts of the hospital task force, and that details of town operations, such as parks and public spaces, should be handled by town staff.
In Mount Desert, selectmen agreed two weeks ago to form a similar task force, but moved this week to scrap it.
“I think when that (the idea of a task force) came up from the Chamber of Commerce at our last meeting, the state didn’t have the phased reopening plan in place,” Selectman Matt Hart said. “Now that that’s in place, the municipality has to abide by that. And other than trying to be as helpful as we can with business owners and trying to provide them with the information they need, I don’t know that there’s anything proactive that we can be doing at this point.”
Dick Broom contributed to this report.