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AUGUSTA, Maine — Many in Maine’s hospitality industry are indicating fear, frustration and confusion over restrictions on restaurants and hotels that could last into the crucial summer season as the state looks to fight the spread of the coronavirus.
Gov. Janet Mills rolled out a plan last week that allowed businesses including barber shops and salons to reopen while limiting restaurant and lodging into the summer. Industry groups have since looked to persuade the Mills administration to change some of the requirements and the Democratic governor said more changes could come this week.
The Bangor Daily News held a Tuesday session on Zoom with officials from the Maine Tourism Association that was attended by nearly 100 people who had questions on these restrictions and how they will lift under the state’s gradual reopening plan. Here are some answers.
Does anyone know exactly what quarantine looks like? Do guests have to stay inside? Can they go to the grocery store?
We have gotten many questions about the mandated 14-day quarantine for people coming to Maine from out of state, particularly because it would be applied to lodging into August under Mills’ plan. Those people do not have to stay inside if isolated, but they are not supposed to be in public places, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
The April order from Mills establishing the requirement appeared to allow these travelers to engage in activities that have been deemed essential, including grocery shopping. But Maine CDC spokesman Robert Long said shopping is not essential as applied to the quarantine, meaning visitors should bring necessary supplies and not interact with others.
“That means no shopping, going for takeout, picking up supplies at a hardware store, or otherwise exposing others to risk,” Long said.
This requirement has been the main point of contention for the hospitality industry, which has questioned why visitors would want to come to Maine if they had to almost completely hole up. In 2018, overnight visitors stayed in Maine for an average of 3.6 nights, so such a mandate would not comport with normal tourism patterns.
What is the progress of the tourism industry’s discussions with the Mills administration on the 14-day quarantine for visitors from outside of Maine?
They seem to be making progress. HospitalityMaine, an advocacy group for hotels and restaurants that has hammered the requirement, has edged off the criticism a bit in recent days after it teased last week the Mills administration was considering shortening phases in its plan, which keeps hotels and restaurants limited into the summer.
Mills said at a news conference on Wednesday that announcements on relaxing restrictions could come this week. On Wednesday, HospitalityMaine said there are “significant discussions within the administration on how to protect Mainers” in ways other than the quarantine.
Is testing visitors a possibility for the state in order to reduce or eliminate the quarantine requirement?
Testing could be one way the state could reduce or eliminate the quarantine requirement, but it seems to be a long way off. The state was trying to find “multiple options” for tourism, calling quarantine a “last case choice,” Heather Johnson, commissioner of the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development, said last week.
Vermont was considering testing visitors, who would be allowed to leave quarantine if they tested negative, Gov. Phil Scott said. But doing something like that would require Maine to substantially increase its testing capacity.
On Thursday, the Mills administration announced a plan to triple the state’s testing capacity, but that was being billed as a plan to cover all Mainers showing symptoms of the virus, many of whom have been isolated at home without tests so far. Mills simply called it “a step in the right direction” toward testing visitors.
Can Mainers stay at inns?
Not yet, but they can as of June under Mills’ plan, which would phase in dine-in restaurant service and lodging in through June, July and August. Lodging, broadly defined as including hotels, AirBnbs, short-term rentals and other types of places, would be available to Mainers in June and out-of-state visitors in July. Those phases could change, however.
How did coronavirus come to Maine?
There’s no simple answer because different strains of the virus often show up in the same geographic area. But the new coronavirus originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan. That led to two main U.S. epicenters in New York City, where most cases have been traced to Europe, and the Seattle area, whose first confirmed case was tied to China.
Research from Nextstrain published in The New York Times found New York City has been the predominant source of cases in other parts of the country, particularly in the northeast, where 94 percent of Massachusetts cases that have been sequenced are tied to the city.
There was no data released for Maine, but the chances are that our situation is not much different and that regional travel is responsible. The state’s first recorded case involved a Navy reservist who traveled to Italy, though that person was not necessarily the first carrier in Maine.
What is your sense as to the number of restaurants and lodging facilities we will lose?
Estimates for the share of restaurants and hotels that will go under vary widely. In a national survey by the National Restaurant Association in late March, 3 percent of restaurant owners said they had already closed their businesses permanently, while another 11 percent expected to do so in the coming month. Another survey by the James Beard Foundation in mid-April found that just one in five restaurant owners were “certain” they would be able to maintain their businesses through the end of the crisis.
How many restaurants and hotels last will depend in part on how long the coronavirus crisis continues. Maine restaurants are set to reopen at limited dine-in capacity starting in June, while hotels are likely to reopen in June for Maine residents and July for out-of-staters.
There remains the question of whether citizens will feel comfortable going out to eat if the virus remains a threat. Polling from Morning Consult last week found that 50 percent of Americans say they are less likely to eat at a restaurant due to concerns about the virus.
Do you know how long Canadian border restrictions will be continuing and what the current impact has been on tourism here?
The U.S.-Canada border closure is set to expire on May 20, though the governments of both countries — or potentially either — could extend it. In 2018, Canadians accounted for about 14 percent of tourist arrivals in Maine, according to state data.
Most of those visits were in the summer or fall, so the effect of the border closure on tourism has probably been small, though it has posed a challenge for Mainers used to crossing the border regularly. If the border reopens, Canadian travelers are likely to be subject to the same state regulations as other visitors.
Watch: Janet Mills outlines her plan to reopen