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As business owners in Maine’s summer tourist industry prepare to open — many filled with dread that an ongoing coronavirus pandemic will keep visitors away — some are concerned they won’t have enough employees to operate this season.
Worker shortages are a perennial issue for Maine’s tourism industry, most of which are located in rural areas that simply don’t have enough locals to fill available positions, or affordable housing to accommodate workers they recruit elsewhere.
Many hotels, restaurants and farmstand operations rely on visa programs that allow them to hire workers from other countries to fill positions that otherwise would remain vacant. But an array of bureaucratic obstacles brought on by the worldwide spread of the coronavirus — from visa processing to travel restrictions — is on track to significantly reduce the number of foreign employees they hire.
Some employers in Maine’s seasonal tourist industry are concerned that even if COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, doesn’t prevent customers from showing up this summer, it will prevent them from importing workers they need to operate their businesses.
On Monday, President Donald Trump tweeted that he was signing an order that would temporarily “suspend immigration” — which he has frequently tried to restrict throughout his presidency. Trump has not provided specific details of that plan.
Eben Salvatore, director of operations for Bar Harbor Resorts, acknowledged that having too few employees to handle demand could be considered “a good problem to have,” given fears that the state’s summer tourism industry could take a major hit this summer if concerns about the disease significantly reduce the number of visitors to Maine.
“Everything is up in the air right now,” Salvatore said, noting that the federal government has suspended processing of foreign worker visas. He said that the hotel firm has gotten renewals for some of its foreign workers, including many Jamiacans who already are in the United States and who have spent the winter working at ski resorts. But the firm is still awaiting approval for other workers who left the country over the winter.
Even if the government resumes processing visas, he said, international travel restrictions might prevent some approved foreign workers from traveling to the U.S.
“It’s only April,” Salvatore said, adding that the firm’s hotels and restaurants in Bar Harbor are not expected to open for the summer until next month. “On May 20, it might start to matter for us.”
In March, the Trump administration indicated it would allow an additional 35,000 H-2B workers into the U.S. — more than it had in any of the prior three years. That’s in addition to the 33,000 that are allowed in every six months. A couple thousand foreign workers in the program come to Maine every year to work primarily at hotels and restaurants that rely on tourists for most of their business.
Earlier this month, however, the Department of Homeland Security put that increase on hold indefinitely.
Those additional 35,000 H-2B workers “are never coming back,” Greg Dugal, director of government affairs for HospitalityMaine, said Monday. “Now we’re sitting here, waiting to see what will happen.”
Dugal said the most immediate hurdle is getting to the point where it is safe for businesses to welcome customers through their doors again. If summer hotels and restaurants have to go until June before they are ready and able to fill certain jobs, he added, the season could be salvaged.
“It’s going to take a while,” for businesses to resume operations, and possibly for people to gain confidence to make vacation travel plans, Dugal said.
Dugal, who was executive director of the Camden-area Chamber of Commerce in 2001, recalled how there was a surge of visitors in the midcoast that year in late October and early November, after tourism had virtually come to a halt immediately following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Tourists will come back to Maine after this disaster, too, he said, but there is no precedent to the COVID-19 pandemic that might suggest how soon it will be.
“Hopefully, we’ll have our [hotel and restaurant] staffs filled out and we’ll be ready to go,” Dugal said.
Salvatore said the suspension of the J-1 visa program, which allows foreign students to travel to the U.S. to take jobs for up to 90 days, could have even a broader impact on Bar Harbor’s tourist businesses. Unlike many of Bar Harbor Resorts’ H-2B workers, none of the J-1 workers who came in 2019 are in the U.S. now, he said.
If they cannot return because their visa applications are not processed, or because more general travel restrictions keep them at home, that could leave roughly 100 jobs that the firm is unable to fill. Other Bar Harbor businesses that hire J-1 workers would be in the same boat.
“We get one or two [American citizens] who apply” for jobs that tend to be filled by foreign students, Salvatore said. “That’s the one that’s really going to hurt. [J-1 visa workers] are a very important part in the local tourist economy.”
Allyson Cavaretta of Meadowmere Resort, who hires roughly 20 H-2B visa workers each year at her family’s Ogunquit lodging business, said Tuesday that even in the Great Recession, when unemployment was relatively high, she had to hire foreign workers to fill jobs. She said she again has applied for federal approval to hire foreign workers for seasonal jobs that local residents have not applied for. But it “remains up in the air” if some of her employees from Jamaica will be allowed to come back, she said.
Meadowmere Resort is open year-round but gets most of its business in the summer and fall. It closed in mid-March because of coronavirus concerns for the first time since the business was founded in the 1980s, Cavaretta said, and remains closed now.
“It is a heart-breaking situation,” she said, adding that many of the resort’s returning customers have opted to reschedule visits planned for this spring for later in the year. “Who knows what [the summer] will look like.”
She said she hopes the economy will rebound, after public health officials allow businesses to reopen and stay-at-home orders are lifted. She hopes lingering concerns about the virus don’t keep foreign workers away and needed tourism jobs unfilled.
“None of us have a crystal ball,” she said. “It does feel like this season will have an interesting needle to thread.”
Salvatore held out hope that 2020 still could be a good summer in the tourism business. He said that it may not be like previous summers, and that some people who run a greater risk of getting sick from COVID-19 may opt to stay home, but that the timing of when travel and business restrictions are relaxed could wind up drawing a lot of domestic vacationers to Maine.
“Nobody wants to go to Europe, nobody wants to go to Asia, and gas is never going to be cheaper than it is now,” Salvatore said. “I think we can get back to life pretty quick.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.