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For nearly two weeks now, Greg Dugal of the industry trade group Hospitality Maine has been receiving about 100 emails an hour from restaurant, hotel and motel owners, and others seeking clarity or information about how they can still operate during the coronavirus pandemic.
That number was slowing down a little, but it jumped back up on Friday evening. That’s when Gov. Janet Mills ordered the suspension of most lodging operations through the end of the month in an effort to deter visitors from traveling to Maine. The goal of the order is clear, Dugal said, but some of the details, such as who will be exempted and still allowed to stay in hotels, motels, campgrounds, RV parks and short-term rental facilities, are not.
“I’m a hospitality professional. People are calling me and wanting to know what’s the answer,” Dugal said. “We’re all Type A. Nobody wants to hear, you know what, there may not be one yet. We have to wait.”
For some of his association’s members, waiting for clarity is hard. One man in Aroostook County had 15 questions that Dugal could not answer, including whether farm supply salespeople who are not from the area and need lodging are considered essential. Dugal is seeking answers to that question, and others, from the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development.
“There’s been a lot of interpretation issues. We’re hoping that some of that will be cleared up this week,” Dugal said
Lodging can still be provided for vulnerable populations such as children in emergency placements, people at risk of domestic violence and people who are homeless as permitted by the state, according to the order. Health care workers and other workers deemed necessary to support public health, public safety and critical infrastructure also are still allowed to obtain lodging, but no one can reserve a room or house online, the order said.
Mills said that she hopes compliance with the order will be voluntary, but it also may be enforced by police as necessary. Individual violations of the order may be charged as a Class E crime, subject to a penalty of up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.
Dave Milan, the economic development director for Orono, said that no hotelier or short-term rental owner he has talked to disagrees with the reason for the order. But they, and he, also have a lot of questions about how it will work.
“It’s a little frustrating, to have an order like this go out late on a Friday and it goes in effect on a Sunday and there’s no one around to answer questions,” he said. “I’m getting calls from folks who it’s affecting. They want to know, ‘What do we do?’ I think everybody understands the necessity to do something. But just give us the rules and let us understand what the rules are.”
Orono has a “tremendous” amount of AirBnBs and other types of short-term rentals, he said, as well as some hotels. The people that own them would like to get clarity around language that’s used in the order, including “permitted by the state” or “arranged by the state.”
“Who’s supposed to give that permission? Who’s going to be arranging that from the state, and how are you supposed to get ahold of those people,” Milan asked. “One of the exceptions is that you can use the hotels for providing accommodation for people who are supporting critical infrastructure. Again, the question is what is critical infrastructure?”
On Saturday, he tried to figure that out, and learned that critical infrastructure and essential workers seem to be synonymous. It would help if the state would stick to one term or the other, he said.
“We’re trying to give some guidance to the lodging folks as to what they can do, and who they can accept as a guest,” Milan said.
That category of essential workers would include construction workers helping to build a health care facility, and health care workers, Dugal said. But there are others, too.
“It’s mostly kind of been common sense,” he said. “A truck driver delivering food — nothing could be more essential than that.”
Some essential workers might not look that way at first glance, according to Eva Murray from Matinicus. About 16 times a year, she rents a U-Haul to take waste and recycling off the island and bring freight back. All of those trips require her to stay overnight on the mainland, and she’s worried that she doesn’t have a way to prove she’s essential.
“It would be difficult, because I will not look from a distance like I’m any different from some private citizen who is moving to Maine,” she said. “I would have some explaining to do if somebody actually stopped me.”
Dugal recommends that until there is more guidance from the state that hoteliers keep a log at the front desk, in which staff note a guest’s company and what their job is.
“Err on the side of caution. Don’t accept any out of state guests who aren’t essential workers,” he said. “I personally don’t feel that people will be rushing out to enforce this, or chastise [hoteliers] for not knowing.”
Steve Tanguay of Searsport Shores Campground said he hopes that the state will give the owners of lodging establishments plenty of notice before making any additional orders or changes. Although April is usually a quiet month at the campground, things start to pick up after that.
“It won’t affect too many people right now, but it would be good to revisit [soon] so we can start planning long term,” he said. “There will be a lot of people on the road, starting in the beginning of May. Our oldest guests, a few of those have had concerns and canceled. Otherwise, people are planning on coming.”