BAR HARBOR — Tuesday was a big day for cancellations at local lodging businesses after Governor Janet Mills announced Monday that, effective July 1, most out-of-state visitors must either receive a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours or less prior to arrival in Maine or observe the 14-day quarantine.
At the Harborside Hotel, the front desk staff had cleared the voice messages when they left for a 45-minute lunch break. When they returned from lunch, there were 41 new messages on the hotel’s direct line, according to Eben Salvatore, director of operations for the hotel group that includes the Harborside.
“The hospitality industry is in need of a lifeline that can easily be communicated to visitors,” Alf Anderson, executive director of the Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce wrote in an email to chamber members Tuesday. “With each new update to the requirements for visitors, our lodging establishments receive an influx of cancellations. Guests who are waiting for news that they will be allowed to travel to Maine without burdensome restrictions are forced to give up hope and cancel their existing reservations.
“With yesterday’s announcement … there was another round of lodging cancellations and we have now reached a point where our season is all but lost,” Anderson wrote. “We are in need of immediate action to avoid a catastrophic closing of businesses.”
Visitors will be asked to sign a compliance form, provided at all Maine lodging, campgrounds, seasonal rentals, overnight camps and other commercial lodging (including vacation rentals), stating either that they’ve received a negative COVID-19 test, that they will quarantine in Maine for 14 days or that they have already completed their quarantine in Maine.
The forms will be kept on file at the lodging establishment for a period of time (perhaps 30 days, Governor Janet Mills said). Visitors “may” be required to provide proof of their negative test result if they’re asked, but the medical documents themselves wouldn’t be kept by the lodging business.
“We don’t want to make the hotel staff become a repository for HIPAA-protected information,” said Mills in a media briefing on Monday.
Visitors from New Hampshire and Vermont are exempt from the testing and 14-day quarantine requirement altogether, and may begin patronizing lodging establishments June 12.
The state Department of Economic and Community Development circulated a draft of the plan for visitor testing last week for feedback. Many hospitality businesses and industry groups provided comments and met with department officials.
“When we got a draft that we were so excited to see, the room went quiet,” Salvatore said. “We had to wait nine weeks for this? Is anybody applying public health to this or is this strictly a ‘Keep Out’?”
Nothing in the draft plan appears to have changed as a result of that input, Salvatore said, but the state leaders “still have the nerve to say they’ve worked with us.”
Ocean Properties, the parent company of Bar Harbor Resorts, engaged crisis management and public safety consulting firm DCMC Partners to assist with that feedback and to draft alternative proposals. They also helped form a new advocacy group, “Work with Maine” to draw attention to what they see as problems with the state’s approach.
Their concerns are legal — restricting travel from only certain states, equal protection and disparate impact — and practical. What if a visitor contracts the virus after their test, on their way here? What about false positive tests? Will visitors lie? What about people who live in New Hampshire but work in Boston? Is it fair to ask hotel workers to be in charge of this?
“The number of tourists (37 million) that come to Maine every year makes the (visitor testing) centerpiece of the DECD proposal KeepMEHealthy impractical,” Bar Harbor Town Council Chair Jeff Dobbs wrote to Mills, on behalf of the council.
There are several existing lawsuits challenging the quarantine order. A federal judge denied a request for an injunction to halt the order, but did so because the complaint was based on anticipated future losses.
“The losses are real now,” Salvatore said.
The state’s seasonal tourist economy generates about $17 million every day of the summer season.
“There are only 95 days left until Labor Day, and every day counts,” Dobbs wrote.
Mills’ announcement this week included an expansion of testing capacity at the state lab and with IDEXX Laboratories in southern Maine, including the development of “swab and send” sites across the state.
Rather than visitor testing and quarantine, local businesses and town officials support a plan from the Downeast COVID-19 Task Force for regular, asymptomatic testing for frontline employees along with other measures.
“With the greatly expanded testing capacity … we encourage Governor Mills to reconsider the option of sentinel testing of community members, including frontline workers, to better gauge the health of our state and to track any possible spread of contagion,” Anderson said in a press release.
The safety protocols that have been developed for lodging businesses are working to protect guests and employees, Salvatore said.
“Ocean Properties has had 33,000 room nights in our hotels just in the state of Maine since March 15,” including many health care workers, he said. The company has not had “a single sick employee” in that time.
“And that’s important, because what we’re pushing for isn’t an experiment,” he continued. “It’s real, applied practices that are proven to work.”
Kate Cough contributed to this report.