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The Seaside Inn on Kennebunk Beach has been hosting travelers coming to Maine for a long, long time. Founded in 1667, it has been family owned and operated ever since. Ken and Trish Mason are the ninth generation to operate the inn, Ken Mason said this week. But he isn’t sure the Seaside Inn will make it if tourists don’t flock to his inn this summer like they have for generations before. Nearly four out of five reservations for the summer have canceled, he said.
“We’ve never been at risk before, ever,” Mason said. “But now we are. We expected our children to be the 10th generation, but we don’t know what’s happening now.”
Across Maine, business owners in the hospitality industry — which include owners of restaurants, motels, lodges, amusement parks, white water rafting companies and others — are wrestling with unprecedented uncertainty as the time left to save the summer tourist season, and with it the livelihoods of thousands of Mainers, grows smaller by the day.
“We need to open now,” said Fred Forsley, founder and president of Shipyard Brewing Company, which owns nine brewpubs across the state.
Business owners across the state and country are making decisions about the future of their businesses while operating with a dearth of information about the virus, the tourist season and, in some cases, when they will be allowed to reopen to out-of-state visitors. But perhaps no industry has been more disrupted than the hospitality industry, which depends on tourists and sells socially intimate experiences.
Like other states, Maine must balance economic impact and public safety while reopening. What makes Maine unique is its disproportionately large tourism industry and the relatively small timeframe in which the industry generates the bulk of its revenues. Tourism generates $9 billion for the Maine economy and $610 million in tax revenue, according to the Maine Office of Tourism.
“It’s a very tough call,” said Suzie Hockmeyer, co-founder of Northern Outdoors Adventure Resort in The Forks. “You are asking [leaders] to weigh people’s lives against people’s livelihood. How you balance those, I couldn’t tell you.”
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Owners in the industry expressed a desire for their patrons and staff to stay healthy, in interviews this week. But many questioned the state’s 14-day quarantine for out-of-state visitors, which they said could effectively prevent tourist dollars from coming to Maine. Others were concerned about out-of-state visitors bringing the virus into the state. And all of the owners are operating in a polarized environment where expressing concern about safety issues — or not expressing enough concern — can result in a social media swarm.
“It’s simply the nature of this disaster – no one can predict the future of where we go from here,” said restaurateur Michael Boland, who owns several restaurants on Mount Desert Island. His restaurants usually take reservations months in advance, he said. But this year “it’s really just not happening.” He estimated reservations are down 90 percent “or more.”
“We’re all making decisions every day that we’ve never had to make before,” Boland said.
One of those decisions is whether to continue operating. Earlier this week, the owners of The Drouthy Bear in Camden announced they were closing the pub and restaurant permanently in a Facebook post, explaining that “the intimate space we have created (and love) does not allow us to provide a safe environment for our patrons or staff that can adapt to our current, albeit temporary, reality.” Co-owner Andrew Steward declined to comment for this story.
Brothers James and Andrew Allen, owners of the Wild Acadia Fun Park in Trenton, had to make a decision they would have thought unthinkable before the pandemic: not reopen their park for the 2020 summer season.
The Allens said social distancing wasn’t feasible for kids running around an amusement park.
“Could we stomach putting them at risk?” James Allen asked. “This is the definition of a public gathering place. Staying open didn’t make any sense at all.”
Other amusement parks have reached the same conclusion. Funtown Splashtown USA in Saco has also announced it will remain closed for the 2020 season.
“I’ve always felt like our investment in Maine tourism was quite safe because historically the tourism industry weathers bad economic downturns pretty well,” Andrew Allen said.
“I always sort of joked and said to bring down the Maine tourism industry, and more specifically the Mount Desert Island tourism industry, would take some global disaster,” Andrew Allen said. “And here we are. We are in it. And it’s pretty frightening.”
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Tourism supports 110,000 jobs during the height of the summer season, which represents roughly 16 percent of the Maine workforce, according to the Maine Office of Tourism. Maine is also the state with the largest proportional increase of employment in the restaurant industry during the summer, according to the National Restaurant Association.
With most of that revenue generated in the summer months, there is increasing pressure on both Gov. Janet Mills and the industry to reopen in a way that both keeps the industry afloat and keeps Maine safe at a time when hospitalizations from COVID-19 in the state are on the rise, but the state’s death rate per 100,000 people ranks lower than 40 states. More than 100,000 people have died from the pandemic nationwide.
‘I don’t know if I’m going to make it’
Many owners have expressed worry Mills’ quarantine order for out-of-state visitors will keep people from visiting, since they would have to quarantine for two weeks upon arrival. Last year 37 million people visited Maine, a state with a population of just 1.3 million.
Maine is one of many states with a 14-day quarantine requirement for out-of-state visitors. New England states Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont and Rhode Island all have 14-day quarantines in place for visitors.
On Friday, Maine Center for Disease Control Director Nirav Shah said policymakers were discussing how to replace the 14-day quarantine and that “all ideas are on the table.” Possible replacements for the quarantine include asking visitors to quarantine prior to coming to Maine, documentation of a recent test before entering the state, and temperature and symptom checks.
Earlier this month, owners of several southern Maine businesses sued to lift the requirement. On Friday, a federal judge upheld the quarantine order despite the U.S. Justice Department’s argument that the rule is discriminatory. The Maine Tourism Association also sent a letter to Mills earlier this month asking her to rescind the quarantine requirement, noting “Maine’s tourism economy is on the verge of collapse.”
Many of the owners who spoke with the Bangor Daily News said they aren’t asking to go back to the days before the pandemic. Rather, they believe that with health guidelines and social distancing measures in place, the quarantine can be lifted.
“I don’t want anybody to die over this,” said Bob Davis, who owns the Old Colonial Motel in Old Orchard Beach. Davis estimated that 95 percent of his business was from out-of-state visitors.
“We’ll follow the protocol. We have a lot more information now,” Davis said. “It’s time to open up again.”
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But not all southern Maine businesses want the order lifted. Jay Villani, owner of Portland’s Local 188 restaurant, was one of dozens of southern Maine business owners who urged Mills to keep the 14-day quarantine in place in a letter dated May 18. Those business owners wrote that the quarantine “is one of the only protections we feel allows us a fighting chance to maintain our low case numbers and to protect our workers and ourselves.”
Villani said he has been a target of “vitriol” for signing the letter. But he believes that anger is misplaced.
“There should be anger at leadership at the federal level,” Villani said. “Why isn’t there a testing strategy in place? These are the issues people should be upset about.”
“If our hospitals start getting overwhelmed and we have to go backwards, then we’ll never get out of this,” Villani said. “We have to be smart about this. I know it hurts. It hurts everyone.”
“There are going to be tough decisions I have to make,” Villani said. “I don’t know if I’m going to make it.”
‘We don’t understand how decisions are being made’
With the Maine Legislature adjourned, some industry leaders felt they were being shut out from a decision-making process that could make or break one of Maine’s signature industries.
“We don’t have any insight on who specifically is making those decisions and how those discussions are happening,” said Alison Sucy, a lobbyist for the Maine Tourism Association.
For example, earlier this week, the state changed course on its plan to let restaurants in three counties — Androscoggin, Cumberland and York — open for inside table service on June 1, delaying those openings indefinitely. It allowed outside dining.
Steve Hewins, president of HospitalityMaine, a trade association for the restaurant and lodging industry, said he was blindsided by the news.
“We don’t understand how decisions are being made,” he said.
On Friday, Shah said the decision to delay the openings was based on an uptick in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in those counties in recent days.
But for restaurant owners that had hired staff and bought perishable food in anticipation of opening, the change of plans represented thousands of dollars wasted.
“We thought we had a plan. We were following it and getting ready for the new normal,” said Forsley, with Shipyard Brewing Company, which owns four restaurants in the three counties affected by the change. “I’m frustrated and sick to my stomach.”
‘I hope they will fill my seats’
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Restaurants in Penobscot County can open for dine-in service on Monday as long as they follow a series of pandemic-related requirements, which include servers wearing masks, six feet between tables, and single-use condiments, among others.
On Thursday, the staff of The Fiddlehead in Bangor gathered at the restaurant’s small Hammond Street dining room to taste the new menu in anticipation of opening.
As the staff members tried a variety of dishes, including lobster rangoons and salad decorated with fiddleheads, co-owner Laura Peppard told her staff that one server had made handmade masks for each of them.
Peppard had removed all the seats at the bar and in the dining room to ensure her customers could dine while maintaining appropriate distance. She estimated the changes mean she will lose roughly 25 percent of her customers on a busy night.
Peppard believes it’s going to be up to locals to help her succeed.
“I have a lot of regulars,” Peppard said. “I hope they will fill my seats.”
Watch: Janet Mills announces changes to June 1 reopening phase