BAR HARBOR — The wait for the restroom has begun, Jay Boyce, who manages the Hannaford grocery store, said in an email to the Town Council this week.
The town’s public restrooms have been closed since the pandemic emergency began in March. A few are reopening this week; the council decided Tuesday to ask the town manager to open them as soon as he deems it is safe to do so.
The restrooms are part of the bigger debate about how to allow and encourage enough tourist activity this summer to keep businesses afloat, but avoid sending a message that the town will be able to safely handle anything like the usual crowds in peak season.
“There are tourists here,” Councilor Matt Hochman said. “I don’t know where they’re staying (hotels are restricted to essential travelers until June 1), but there are definitely people here.”
Councilor Stephen Coston said that judging by hotel bookings, it seems unlikely that there will be too many people here. Bookings in Bar Harbor lodging establishments for June from one of the major providers of online bookings are down 83 percent compared with last year, he said. July is down 69 percent, “and people are canceling in droves.”
Businesses are beginning to reopen and the town is getting busier, but the grocery store has been one of the only options for public restroom facilities. Meanwhile, the store is only allowed to have a certain number of customers in the store at a time, per Governor Janet Mills’ executive order.
“People entering the building solely for the restroom now impacts others waiting to shop,” Boyce wrote, adding that that “will become a bigger challenge as the season moves along.
“Many restaurants or shops may continue solely with takeout and not offer a restroom,” he continued. “Many other shops do not have them available to the public to begin with. (Tourists) are here to visit the town, and I think some services should come with that visit.”
The town’s public restrooms present several technical challenges, Town Manager Cornell Knight explained. All of them use air dryers for drying hands. Those dryers can keep particles containing viral material airborne and circulate them around the building. A toilet flushing also creates some aerosolizing activity. The public restroom in the public safety building needs to remain closed because it shares an air handling system with the police and fire stations.
The town has ordered paper towel dispensers and will install the first ones in the Newport Drive public restrooms, likely before the weekend, Knight said. Other dispensers are on backorder. Portable toilets, including a handicapped-accessible one, may also be rented for the season.
The Bar Harbor Rotary Club announced this week that it will not hold its traditional pancake breakfast and seafood lunch on the Fourth of July. The Chamber of Commerce, which organizes the parade and fireworks on that day, hasn’t officially canceled anything yet.
“Alternatives are being sought,” chamber Executive Director Alf Anderson told the council. “We probably won’t need the resources from the police department and fire department that we normally do.”
Councilor Jill Goldthwait asked how any event at all could be organized without violating the ban on gatherings of more than 50 people.
“The Fourth of July is now the next big anxiety producer for the local community,” she said. Delaying announcements that events will be canceled, she said, “is only prolonging the anxiety.”
The municipal building has reopened to the public, with masks required and spacing marked on floors for people waiting to do business in the various offices, Knight said. Meetings of town boards and committees will continue to be held remotely for the time being.
The town’s playgrounds on Park Street and in Town Hill are being reopened.
“The virus doesn’t last long on outside surfaces,” Knight said. It will be up to parents to use their discretion and bring their own sanitary wipes, he said.