BAR HARBOR — Members of the Town Council have been hearing from their constituents a lot lately.
People are concerned about how to protect the local population and rural medical resources from being overloaded as the coronavirus crisis continues. But some also are beginning to plan and prepare for “a stark downturn in tourism,” as Councilor Gary Friedmann put it, “that’s going to pummel our local economy.”
The council voted unanimously Tuesday to extend the existing suspension of cruise ship visits here through the end of June, but members noted that the ships are not the only “potential vector” for spread of the virus as summer approaches.
An emergency order detailing a town ban on lodging for nonessential travel was issued last Thursday, after the action was approved by the council in a split vote earlier in the week. The order provides for fines of up to $500 for businesses found to be in violation.
The next day, a very similar set of restrictions went into effect statewide. Governor Janet Mills signed an executive order instructing “all lodging and accommodations” to close and carrying criminal penalties up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine for violations.
Health care workers and “other workers deemed necessary to support public health, public safety or critical infrastructure” are exempt from the order, as are vulnerable populations including the homeless and those at risk of domestic violence.
The order also mandates that “any person, resident or non-resident, traveling into Maine must immediately self-quarantine for 14 days.”
“Bar Harbor is a community that benefits from and welcomes visitors from around the world every year,” a statement from Town Manager Cornell Knight in a Frequently Asked Questions document attached to the town’s order reads.
“We recognize that this suspension of lodging services will require people to make significant sacrifices, and we appreciate your understanding and patience, in complying with these restrictions. We look forward to welcoming our visitors when it is safe to do so.”
Residents had noticed and reported several online vacation rental listings touting Bar Harbor as a “safe haven” and offering “coronavirus specials.” The lodging order states that “occupancy of transient accommodations and vacation rentals has grown notably in the past week as individuals seek to flee the implications of COVID-19 in their home communities.”
Knight told the council Tuesday that, according to Harbormaster Charlie Phippen, of the cruise ships originally scheduled to visit here before May 20, there’s only one that hasn’t cancelled yet.
The Zaandam, a Holland America ship that was denied permission to dock in several places before finally disembarking passengers in Florida last week with several ill with COVID-19 and some dead, is still listed on the schedule to be in Bar Harbor the day before and the day after the Fourth of July, Councilor Jill Goldthwait noted.
“The governor has moved the election into July; that to me is a good hint” that it won’t be prudent to permit large gatherings before that time, she said. “There’s no way to preserve social distancing on the sidewalks” when a large ship sends passengers ashore here.
Eben Salvatore, the chairman of the town’s Cruise Ship Committee, said in an email to councilors that the ships will not resume operations “without having reviewed new protocol with the federal government including the CDC.” He suggested the committee and the council review those protocols, “if and when cruise ships announce plans to resume.”
On Friday the Coast Guard issued a press release saying, “the drawdown of passenger operations is a major milestone,” referring to a cruise industry group decision to voluntarily suspend operations for a month, “but but it does not eliminate U.S. government concerns for cruise ships and their crews.” Since March 7 the Coast Guard has participated in 31 medivac transports for critically ill passengers, according to the release.
Councilors agreed they could extend the ship suspension into July or further at a future meeting.
In mid-March, the Canadian Minister of Transport announced that cruise ships would not be allowed to dock in Canadian ports until July 1. That order has recently been tightened to include smaller boats, councilors said; it was not yet clear whether the new order will affect the CAT ferry.
Councilors said that of the many emails they received on the topic, the majority were asking them to cancel the whole cruise ship season.
“I found it a little weird that some of the arguments were, ‘Ban cruise ships but please let us still rent motel rooms,’” Councilor Matt Hochman said.
Goldthwait said she worries that whenever the state begins to lift travel and lodging restrictions, Bar Harbor will “take all comers.
“Whatever it is, it’s going to be a very dramatic beginning to the season,” she said. “If that is being taken into consideration by state officials, I’m not hearing it.”
Friedmann agreed that the town should have representatives involved as state agencies and other groups consider on how to support the tourist industry here for the remainder of the year.
The Chamber of Commerce is working on those questions of how seasonal businesses can promote safety when they do eventually open, director Alf Anderson told the council.
“We’re focused on what we’re going to do to make it safe for visitors, when it is safe” for them to come,” he said. The chamber has been compiling safety information for each category of business, he said, “so everybody is working off the same song sheet.”