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Frustrated businesses pressed Maine’s top economic development official Wednesday on how they will be able to restart under a reopening plan rolled out by Gov. Janet Mills on Tuesday that includes quarantines for out-of-state tourists and runs through the late summer.
Some 250 businesses joined the Zoom call with Heather Johnson, commissioner of the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development. Many questions centered on a requirement that out-of-state visitors self-quarantine for 14 days upon entering the state. Several of the participants said the requirement is scaring away potential tourists from a season already delayed by coronavirus restrictions.
“Our phones are ringing off the hook with cancellations,” Ted Hugger, owner of the Cod Cove Inn and Cedar Crest Inn in Edgecomb, wrote in a comment to Johnson.
Johnson admitted that the quarantine provisions, which are included in the second and third stages of the governor’s plan and are set to begin in June, may not work as well in practice as in theory. She said the plan tried to look into the future but may have made things more complicated for the private sector in the short term.
“I think we may have misunderstood the complexity of the business side of some of this,” Johnson said.
The department plans to post initial checklists Wednesday on its website. They will include safety requirements, by industry, for the first stage of businesses that can open, including hair salons. Checklists for the other three stages are still being completed, Johnson said. Each business has to agree to comply with the checklist, and can get a sticker and label to put on its door and website to show it does, though the state will not initially verify that workplaces are following the measures.
While quarantining remains the only option now for letting out-of-state tourists into Maine, Johnson said the state is actively pursuing alternatives. The department talked to companies about two weeks ago about options to test the large volumes of people who could come through the state in July and August. Johnson said the testing technology is not ready yet and no contracts have been signed.
The tourism industry, whose hotel, restaurant and bar owners have been hit hard by the economic shutdown and stay-at-home order, has been frustrated by the reopening schedule and lack of details.
Certain lodging and campgrounds can open June 1 under stage 2 of the plan for Maine residents and those who have met the 14-day quarantine requirement. More lodging opens up July 1 in stage 3 of the governor’s plan, but it also includes quarantines for people entering Maine.
“I’ve gotten hundreds of calls in the last 24 hours,” said Steve Hewins, president and CEO of HospitalityMaine, an industry group. “The people I’m hearing from are scared and angry and looking for directives.”
He questioned whether the small restaurants and hotels can wait till June or July to restart. A JPMorgan Chase study found that of nearly 600,000 small businesses it polled, only half had enough cash to support 27 days of operations.
Hewins cautioned that the harm to the hospitality industry could ripple through the entire Maine economy. Hospitality revenues were up about 11 percent in January over the prior year, and the hospitality industry already had 13 straight years of record growth. With $8 billion in revenue in 2019 and employing one in 10 Mainers, it also is the second-largest industry contributing to Maine’s economy, he said.
“Now, we’re less than 10 percent of what revenues were a year ago,” he said. “We’re at a virtual standstill.”
Rick Snow, chairman of the Maine Tourism Association and owner of Maine Indoor Karting, a go-cart business in Scarborough, also worries that businesses may not make it. Summer camps, which under the plan would reopen in June through August, are one example. Openings also include quarantines and limitations on the number of people who can attend camps.
“Of the 1.3 million Mainers, how many do you think go to summer camp?” he said, estimating it is only 15 percent or less, not enough to keep the doors open.
Snow expects sales tax figures that restaurants, hotels and other businesses paid on April 15 to cover the first few months of this year will be much lower than last year, and potentially even lower in the July payment that covers April to June. That decrease doesn’t include the potential lost business from the more than 120 cruise ships that normally would come to Portland, Bar Harbor and other areas. A spokesperson for Maine’s budget department said tax figures aren’t yet available.
Snow also noted canceled or postponed events related to Maine’s bicentennial as dipping into potential revenue. A host of other events have been canceled, including festivals and the Beach to Beacon road race. Johnson said Wednesday that Memorial Day, which typically starts the summer tourism season, is unlikely to “have wide tourism access.”
While tourism groups and businesses criticized what they see as a slow reopening, former Maine Senate President Kevin Raye of Perry presented two sides of the issue in a Facebook comment. He also has a real estate business and owns Raye’s Mustard in Eastport.
The Republican wrote that he has seen some “cast stones” at the Democratic governor for her actions, but “few understand the burden on the shoulders of those who must make life and death decisions.”
“As an owner of one of those tourism-dependent small businesses, I feel trepidation about what these next weeks will bring,” he wrote. “But I also have a 91-year-old mother and other loved ones who are high risk, and I do not fault the effort to protect the public health and save lives.”
Watch: Janet Mills outlines her plan to reopen