By Sen. Angus King
Each year, millions of people look forward to their week or two in Maine – to breathe our air, take in our natural beauty, make memories – and in turn, Maine’s businesses look forward to welcoming them. As we all know, tourism contributes to more than just inns or hotels; restaurants, shops, gas stations and recreational attractions across our state rely on the months of May through September for the lion’s share of their yearly revenue.
Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic is threatening the summer season, and while we’d all like to simply return to business as usual, we’ve also watched the drastic increases in coronavirus cases within states who’ve reopened too aggressively – decisions guided by dates instead of data. So, as Maine continues to carefully think and plan through its reopening, we’re left with a scary question: what happens to Vacationland’s economy when tourists have to stay home?
There is no one magic solution here – but from a federal perspective, I’m tapping the tools available to me as a Senator to shore up the seasonal economy in the short-term, help it regain its footing in the mid-term, and fortify its foundation for the future. The most immediate answer has already taken effect – the Paycheck Protection Program, which is helping businesses across the state and nation keep their doors open and their staff employed throughout the coronavirus pandemic. The PPP has been a valuable source of support during this pandemic, and Congress has made needed mid-course corrections to make it work even better, like passing legislation I introduced with Senator Steve Daines (R-Montana) to loosen restrictions and provide more flexibility for business owners. And now, Congress has wisely extended the program so that businesses can apply for the more than $100 billion still available.
But there is more we can do. Last week, I led eight of my Senate colleagues in a letter urging the Small Business Administration to cut the red tape preventing seasonal employers from accessing the full amount of the PPP loans for which they qualify. Because these businesses filled out forms using off-season data (the expected lulls) the initial loans don’t reflect their present reality (the yearly spike in summer business) – and PPP regulations won’t let them update that information. It’s important changes like this that will help us adapt policies to better stabilize our seasonal businesses.
There’s more we can – and must – do, in future stimulus efforts. I am listening closely to Maine’s small and seasonal businesses to inform my work as Congress considers further coronavirus relief legislation and as I assess more data on the pandemic’s economic effects.
Longer term, it’s clear we will need to work together to accelerate the tourism industry’s recovery. That’s why I’ve joined Republican Senator Dan Sullivan (from Alaska) and Democratic Senator Brian Schatz (from Hawaii) to introduce bipartisan legislation like our Visit America Act. This bill would to establish initiative to boost international tourism to the U.S. from roughly 80 million in 2019 to 116 million in 2028 – an investment that would bring much-needed economic activity back to Maine.
There’s another way to support the future of Maine’s tourism industry that is already underway – and it’s just good old common sense. If the old saying goes “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, we can all agree that if it IS broke, you SHOULD fix it. That’s the situation facing national parks across the nation, including our own Acadia National Park. Parks throughout the National Parks Service are facing $12 billion in delayed maintenance projects, threatening the long-term health of these American treasures – including $65 million in delayed repairs at Acadia alone. This is simply poor money management for two reasons: we are only putting off today’s repairs for more expensive ones tomorrow and investments in our national parks are well worth it. The National Parks bring $42 billion to their surrounding communities every year, which Maine people see and benefit from. A few weeks ago, the Senate passed the Great American Outdoors Act, groundbreaking conservation legislation which includes my bipartisan bill (the Restore Our Parks Act) to address this maintenance backlog. This legislation will make a major impact for parks nationwide – supporting more than 100,000 direct and indirect jobs over the next five years, not to mention making our gorgeous attractions even more of a draw.
I wish there was a simpler answer to the challenges our seasonal economy is facing – a hidden, quicker fix that would just get us up and running. Unfortunately, there isn’t – in order to keep ourselves, our families, and our communities safe, we need to proceed with caution. And I’m working in Washington, D.C., to support relief efforts now and a road map to restoring our economy for the future. But Maine people are smart, resourceful and adaptable. We know how to face down obstacles and work collaboratively to find a solution. It won’t be easy, but we can and will get through this – together.
Angus King has served as Maine’s junior United States senator since 2013.