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Jeremiah and Norma Hawkins won’t be driving from Manhattan to midcoast Maine this summer, a trip they have eagerly anticipated for each of the past 28 years. They had to cancel because they could not meet Maine’s mandate for coronavirus testing.
“I’m very disappointed,” said Jeremiah Hawkins, 73. “We don’t eat lobster until we go to Maine.”
Hawkins said it takes about a week to get test results in New York. Maine requires a negative virus test for tourists within 72 hours of visiting the state, making it impossible to meet the timeline. They had a two-week vacation planned for July and may come in August.
That kind of story has become commonplace at the state’s lodging establishments despite an effort by Gov. Janet Mills to move up their reopening date by five days to June 26 with the hope of drawing July 4 holiday travelers. She announced the test alternative to the 14-day quarantine earlier in June. Visitors from New Hampshire and Vermont are exempt.
Her moves may be too little, too late, as hoteliers see cancellations continue to outnumber bookings and blame the 14-day quarantine even with the testing caveat. Some worry they will lose repeat guests for good.
The situation is so urgent that a subcommittee of the governor’s Economic Recovery Committee met Thursday to discuss early draft recommendations to help the hospitality, tourism and retail industries. Among its recommendations is aligning quarantine and testing requirements with those of New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts, which are less stringent.
“It’s a huge barrier to what little was left in the tourism industry this summer,” said Ted Hugger, who owns the Cod Cove Inn in Edgecomb, where the Hawkins planned to stay. “Just yesterday I took another cancellation for someone who was coming in August for six nights and he won’t test. Those reservations also are money to the state that is never going to come back.”
Tourist G. Paul Payton put a dollar value to the losses Maine will incur from his canceled visit. He and his wife, who live in a Philadelphia suburb, had planned four-night stays at Camden and Bar Harbor bed and breakfasts that lost $2,000 because of his cancellations.
Payton said he understands the governor’s concerns about the virus, but suggested she lengthen the 72-hour cutoff. It takes up to 96 hours to get test results in his home state. A 24-hour test is available, but only to those with symptoms.
James Carmack, co-owner of the Elms of Camden, one place the Paytons planned to stay, said the closest testing area in Maine not requiring a doctor’s order is in Augusta, about an hour-long drive.
Those types of revenue losses already are showing in the state’s depleted tax coffers. Maine Revenue Services reported that taxable sales for lodging were down 80.2 percent in April, the first full month that pandemic restrictions were in effect, and restaurants were down 57.9 percent compared to the same month in 2019.
While towns don’t collect the 9 percent lodging tax, they also are incurring significant losses from tourism cancellations. Jean Ginn-Marvin, owner of the Nonantum Resort, said the three largest hotels in Kennebunkport wrote to the town manager asking for help to get state requirements loosened.
The group told Smith that together they paid nearly $567,000 in property taxes and $252,000 in sewer taxes last year to the town plus $3 million in various taxes to the state, including $1.86 million in lodging taxes. But this year, business is so minimal that they have dropped to 146 employees total from 743 last year.
“We’re at the point where we can’t salvage this season and are hoping for enough cash flow to get us through ‘til next year,” said Greg Dugal, director of government affairs for HospitalityMaine, an industry group.
Dugal and a group of midcoast inns recently conducted a random survey of 51 test locations in states with the most travelers to Maine from Virginia through New England. It found only four locations where someone could get a test and result within the 72-hour timeframe without a doctor’s referral or having virus symptoms or a pre-existing condition.
“There’s not enough availability for tests,” Dugal said.
The state, however, has promised at least 20 more swab-and-send test sites that can turn around results within 48 hours. Not all of them might be online by July 1, Heather Johnson, commissioner of the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development, told businesses on a conference call Wednesday.
An app to help visitors through the testing process has been delayed slightly but should be ready soon, said Martha Bentley, manager of small business and entrepreneurial development at the economic development department.
Members of Maine’s hospitality industry have railed against the 14-day quarantine since it was introduced. Most recently, a group of 30 lodging and restaurant owners filed a Freedom of Access Act request with members of the Mills administration to get documentation about the decision-making behind those requirements.
At least one hotel group, Hart Hotels of Buffalo, New York, has used Maine’s restrictions as a springboard to promote the Thousand Islands and Fingerlakes regions in Upstate New York.
“Maine has put restrictions on out-of-state visitors but Upstate New York welcomes you with no red tape,” Hart Hotels said in a recent email blast to its subscriber list. (One of Hart’s properties is the Portland Harbor Hotel. A Hart spokesperson did not return calls seeking comment.)
Gerard Kiladjian, general manager of the Portland hotel, said Hart sends out emails occasionally to drum up business in its various hotels. But he said he wasn’t involved in that ad and “wasn’t 100 percent for it.”
Kiladjian said bookings for July normally would be at 90 percent occupancy right now, but they are at 11 percent. He said those who are canceling have expressed disappointment and even wondered aloud why Maine isn’t welcoming them anymore.
He is concerned about having to make sure guests sign a paper confirming they have had a negative test. But he is optimistic about getting enough business back to make it through the year if the governor lifts testing and quarantine restrictions soon.
“There is a lot of pent-up demand,” Kiladjian said. “We’ll have a chance to salvage our season this year and maybe get 50 percent of our business versus just 10 percent.”