The Bar Harbor Town Council voted Monday to suspend lodging services for nonessential travelers from April 8 to 30.
The temporary restriction is aimed at preventing visitors — people who don’t already have long-term housing arrangements in town — from traveling to Bar Harbor to stay in hotel rooms or campgrounds or to rent a cottage for the week with the idea of reducing potential exposure to COVID-19. People who need to travel for work or who have come to Bar Harbor to assist a family member who lives in town would be exempt from the temporary restriction.
Some residents of Mount Desert Island, similar to residents of other seasonal communities nationwide that draw large numbers of tourists in the summer, have expressed concerns about people coming to Maine from out of state with the hopes of distancing themselves from the global outbreak. Island residents and officials have said that local resources — medical services in particular — could be overwhelmed if “COVID refugees” flock to MDI and bring the disease with them.
Last week, Bar Harbor officials released a notice recommending that “everyone stay home” instead of coming to MDI or Acadia National Park to pass the time while schools and many businesses are closed to prevent the spread of the disease. Acadia last week closed virtually all visitor services in a bid to discourage visitors.
Art Blank, CEO of MDI Hospital, told councilors just prior to the lodging discussion that the local hospital has only three intensive care unit beds and would be ill-suited to handle a large outbreak of COVID-19 on MDI.
The hospital does have five ventilators it can use for patients in severe respiratory distress, Blank said, but it is not geared to treating such patients for days at a time. Hospital officials also are concerned about how long their supplies of personal protective equipment such as medical gloves and adequate face masks might last if they get a wave of patients with COVID-19 symptoms.
“There’s no question, having people come from high-risk areas is going to increase the risk” of infection on MDI or other parts of Maine with low population densities, Blank told councilors.
Councilor Matthew Hochman noted during the council’s meeting Monday afternoon that at least two local properties listed on weekly rental websites are being promoted as places where people from out of town can “escape” the disease. The council was split on whether to adopt the lodging suspension, but all members agreed that such marketing of Bar Harbor vacation rentals was ill-advised.
“Airbnb [properties] and weekly rentals are the last thing we need right now,” Councilor Gary Friedman said. “We need to do something significant.”
Friedmann, who proposed the measure, stressed that it was purely intended to help protect public health, not to discriminate against anyone from out of town.
Not all members of the council shared Friedmann’s opinion. Councilor Stephen Coston, who owns the Inn on Mount Desert, said he felt local lodging businesses on the whole were handling the situation appropriately and that many already were delaying their opening dates because of the outbreak. Closing local lodging businesses will simply displace visitors to other towns and force them to drive to and from Bar Harbor more and to make more stops at local gas stations, which won’t prevent the spread of the coronavirus, he said.
“I think the business community is being very responsible,” Coston said. “The places that are open now need to be open.”
All members of the council acknowledged that the temporary suspension likely is not enforceable, but Town Manager Cornell Knight told them that, according to the town’s attorney, it is legal. He said he would consult with town staff to see whether there might be ways to enforce the suspension and then would report back to the council when it meets next on April 7, the day before the suspension is due to go into effect.
Along with Friedmann, councilors Jeff Dobbs, Joe Minutolo and Jill Goldthwait voted in favor of the lodging suspension. Councilors Coston, Erin Cough and Matt Hochman voted against it.
Hochman, who said he preferred that the council recommend — rather than require — that lodging services be suspended, cautioned that residents of Bar Harbor and of Maine in general need to make sure they do not demonize people from out of state. Trying to identify non-residents by the license plates on their cars can be misguided, he said, and Bar Harbor needs to preserve its welcoming atmosphere if it wants tourists to fill up its hotels this coming summer.
“Even if you see someone with an out-of-state plate, you don’t know where they are from,” Hochman said. “Be kind.”
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