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Gov. Janet Mills announced Monday that Maine will ease restrictions on travelers entering the state, but the extent to which the new policy is able to salvage a tourism season devastated by the coronavirus pandemic depends in part on how other states ramp up testing.
The “Keep Maine Healthy” order allows travelers from any state to enter Maine if they have completed a coronavirus test within 72 hours prior to arrival while increasing symptom checks at key sites. It also immediately opened up travel to visitors from Vermont and New Hampshire.
But some hotel industry leaders are concerned that inaccessibility of testing in some states, combined with general uncertainty, means the policy won’t be enough to jumpstart Maine’s tourism economy, which has been hit hard by the coronavirus restrictions so far.
“Nobody in our membership supported testing as an alternative,” said Greg Dugal, a lobbyist for HospitalityMaine, a trade association representing hotels and restaurants. “Primarily the reason being is because it isn’t readily available.”
Currently, a handful of states, including Illinois, Georgia and Maryland, allow any resident to get tested without a doctor’s order, even if they are not experiencing symptoms. But the states that typically send the most tourists to Maine have yet to expand testing to that level.
In 2019, New York accounted for 20 percent of tourists in Maine, according to the Maine Office of Tourism, followed by Massachusetts at 16 percent and Pennsylvania at 13 percent. New Hampshire and Vermont accounted for about 6 percent. Canada also accounted for 17 percent of tourism in Maine that year, but the U.S.-Canadian border remains mostly closed under an agreement between both countries’ federal governments.
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Heather Johnson, commissioner of the Department of Economic and Community Development, noted that the landscape of testing had “changed dramatically” in recent months, a trend she expected to continue.
“We expect that acceleration to continue. There are a lot of things being brought online,” Johnson said.
Out-of-state visitors could also seek testing in Maine, although they would be required to quarantine until their sample was processed and they received a negative result. Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew of the Department of Health and Human Services said Monday the state is strongly encouraging travelers to get tested in their home state instead.
Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said Tuesday that the state was considering demand from out-of-state tourists as it set up drive-by testing sites across the state.
“As we’ve been doing our planning around the swab-and-send sites, we’ve tried to take into account making sure that those sites have enough throughput not just for Maine people, of course that’s our primary goal, but also have enough capacity for any incoming tourists as well,” Shah said.
Large tourism organizations, which had generally opposed the 14-day quarantine, indicated the new policy was generally a step in the right direction while raising a variety of concerns.
Tony Cameron, CEO of the Maine Tourism Association, said there were “no easy answers” when it came to finding a solution that protected public health while providing the economic boost Maine’s hospitality industry needs. With the new policy, he is concerned about the burden on hotels to ask visitors about testing and “gray areas” around vacation homes and other nontraditional lodging establishments.
“You want to make sure people feel welcomed, and having to ask if somebody has done those things puts a lot of pressure onto the lodging establishments to require that information,” Cameron said.
Dugal, the lobbyist for HospitalityMaine, said he had heard from hotels about visitors canceling reservations in the 24 hours after the order was announced because they did not anticipate being able to comply with the testing requirements. Widespread testing might make sense as a strategy to prevent the spread of coronavirus, he said, but the uncertainty about when that would be achievable puts hotels in a difficult spot.
“What we need is a certain answer, something that will work now, and testing in the future in other places is not that answer,” Dugal said.
States like Maine that have so far seen fewer coronavirus cases have taken different approaches to out-out-of-state travelers. Alaska, which Mills cited in her news conference announcing the change, has a similar policy to Maine.
New Hampshire does not have a testing exemption to its quarantine requirement for out-of-state visitors, but allows travelers to quarantine for 14 days in their home state before visiting. Vermont still has the quarantine for individuals coming from most places, but exempts visitors from certain counties in the Northeast with relatively few cases.
Half a dozen states have requirements only for individuals traveling from foreign countries or hard-hit areas, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit health research organization.
Many states, including Vermont and New Hampshire, also have capacity limits for hotels and other lodging establishments, which Maine has avoided. But whether the current policies will allow in enough tourists to fill Maine hotels remains to be seen. Last year, the state saw 29 million visitors between May and August.
“Summer isn’t coming, it’s here,” Dugal said.
Watch: Janet Mills announces changes to June 1 reopening phase