By Liz Graves and Dick Broom
MOUNT DESERT ISLAND — It’s going to take a lot of planning, and some creativity, for the seasonal tourism industry here to operate at all this year as the coronavirus threat continues. Town officials and Chambers of Commerce are beginning to discuss how best to coordinate that planning.
A statewide ban on nonessential travel and closures of most lodging and restaurant facilities are in place through at least the end of this month, and perhaps longer.
Now that May is fast approaching, the question of when and how local businesses will open and how to “protect community health while restoring livelihoods,” as one proposal put it, is becoming more urgent.
“We know that the reopening of the economy isn’t going to be just throwing the light switch and going back to where we were at the end of February,” Mount Desert Town Manager Durlin Lunt told the Board of Selectmen in that town on Tuesday.
“There are going to be some changes necessitated. Obviously, we are going to get a lot of guidelines from the state on how to do that, but there are other issues you might want to consider as well. There may be issues the town has to help with as we reopen, and there are things the Chamber of Commerce can do.”
Selectmen in Mount Desert agreed at their meeting on Tuesday to form a citizens’ task force to advise town officials and businesses on how to proceed safely once COVID-19 restrictions are loosened or lifted.
Board members said they intend to appoint members of the task force at their May 4 meeting, likely including the police chief, fire chief and business representatives.
In Bar Harbor, Nina St. Germain, the town’s engagement coordinator and a Chamber of Commerce board member, suggested the town create a similar task force.
“Recognizing the foundation of the Bar Harbor economy lies in tourism, and that visitors who may bring COVID-19 pose a threat to our community. Bar Harbor needs to discuss implementation of best practices to prevent and limit transmission once state and federal guidelines have been determined,” she wrote in a proposal to the Town Council.
Councilors opted to table the task force proposal when some argued that the details of business practices are outside the purview of town government, that the council itself ought to continue to lead virus response planning, and that a task force would create more work for town staff.
But they did agree in a split vote to host community forum webinars in May.
“We must begin thinking about long-term strategies to prevent potential devastation of our tourist industry and the families who depend on it for their livelihood, while keeping residents safe and healthy,” Councilor Gary Friedmann wrote in proposing the forums. “Let’s start by hearing what our community thinks about key issues, challenges and possible solutions.”
Micki Sumpter, Director of the Mount Desert Chamber of Commerce, told selectmen in that town that if several towns form task forces, those groups “can interact and make sure, as much as we can, that we are heading in the right direction and are able to be proactive and not reactive.”
She said she meets weekly with leaders of the other chambers, “just so we know we’re not stepping on each other’s toes when changes do start occurring and to make sure that, when there are questions, that we’re all answering the same way as much as we can.”
Protestors in Augusta this week asked Governor Janet Mills to allow businesses to reopen. Maine CDC director Dr. Nirav Shaw has referred to a “dimmer” switch, rather than an on-off switch, to describe how restrictions will likely be lifted gradually, either by geographic area or by sector of the economy.
Jill Goldthwait, a member of the Bar Harbor Town Council, says the state officials making these decisions need to have the information they need “to consider our particular challenges.”
“If the (tourism) season ramps up, there is no social distancing going to happen,” she said at the council’s Tuesday meeting. “Our primary consideration — and it may become a very unpopular one — is the physical health and the mental health of this community.”
The council opted not to send a letter Goldthwait drafted to the governor’s office laying out some of those concerns.
But Town Manager Cornell Knight is talking with managers of other coastal Maine towns, with the Maine Office of Tourism and with hospitality business groups. Councilors said that was a better route for communicating with Augusta than trying to agree on language for a joint letter.
Knight is “sensitive to the differences of opinion” on these issues, as Goldthwait said. “I trust him to make a fair representation of the community’s, especially the council’s, sentiments.”