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BAR HARBOR, Maine — Wearing a cloth face mask as he stood on the sidewalk outside the bicycle shop he and his brother founded more than 40 years ago, Joe Minutolo listed some of the national crises his business has weathered over the years.
The 1979 gas shortage. The savings and loan crisis of the 1980s. The 9/11 terrorist attacks. The stock market crash of 2008.
None of them, he said, compares to the impact the coronavirus pandemic has had on Bar Harbor, which normally is one of the busiest tourist destinations in all of Maine.
“This is the biggest curveball I’ve ever had,” Minutolo said Wednesday as members of his staff quietly waited on a few customers on a patio in front of his Cottage Street shop that, in any other year, would be crowded with rental bikes and tourists. “It’s bizarre.”
Minutolo, who also sits on the Bar Harbor Town Council, has rental bikes in storage this year. Like dozens of other retail businesses that line the downtown village streets, it’s tourists that his shop needs. With far fewer showing up than what the town is used to for this time of year, Bar Harbor just doesn’t quite seem like Bar Harbor.
The Mount Desert Island town, with a population of fewer than 6,000 residents, typically thrives on millions of visitors each year — most from out of state — who throng to the island and Acadia National Park each year between Memorial Day and Columbus Day. But this year, with COVID-19 strangling the global economy and restrictions on people traveling to Maine, only a tiny fraction have shown up.
All you have to do to notice is take a walk along the uncrowded streets downtown, past “vacancy” signs in front of the hotels and empty curbside parking spaces. As of June 21, the town had collected only $43,000 for the month in parking fee revenue, compared with $170,000 for the same time period a year ago. And the Fourth of July holiday, typically a blockbuster day for Bar Harbor’s tourism businesses that draws in tens of thousands of people to the downtown parade and fireworks show, is only a few days away.
Some statewide business and visitor restrictions imposed by Gov. Janet Mills have been relaxed in recent weeks. People who test negative for the disease less than 72 hours before they arrive in Maine no longer have to quarantine for 14 days when they get here and can stay at hotels and campgrounds. Residents of Vermont and New Hampshire, which also have low COVID-19 infection rates, can come to Maine without getting tested or having to quarantine. And hotels were allowed to open to out-of-state visitors on Friday, five days earlier than originally planned.
But local business owners are skeptical those modifications will attract anything like a normal volume of tourists. For those who do come to Bar Harbor, there will be no Fourth of July parade or fireworks show, no movie theaters to visit, and no music concerts to enjoy. Some restaurants and hotels remain fully closed, likely for the year, while bars — long a staple of the town’s evening summertime entertainment options — are prohibited indefinitely from serving customers indoors.
Patrick Morgan, president of Witham Family Hotels, which owns eight hotels in Bar Harbor and one in Ellsworth, said the testing option for out-of-state visitors will make little difference. There simply isn’t enough testing capacity available to fill the town’s hotels with out-of-state visitors, which comprise 85 percent of the lodging company’s business, he said. The problem has been exacerbated nationwide by a surge in COVID-19 cases in places such as Arizona, Texas and Florida, where state officials are facing pressure to reconsider decisions to reopen parts of their economies.
“The testing aspect is insane,” Morgan said, adding that Massachusetts is allowing visitors to quarantine in their home states before they arrive in that state, rather than requiring that they quarantine once they’ve arrived. “It’s just a lot stricter here.”
Still, Morgan said all but one of the company’s local hotels are open, with the last one opening soon. He and his managers are waiting to see how many customers they might get this week. But given the small number of guests they get from northern New England, he was not optimistic that the testing alternative would offset the effect of the quarantine requirement.
“Obviously, we’re struggling,” Morgan said. “That [testing] option is not going to work at all. It is setting the industry up to fail.”
Some retail shop owners say they haven’t fared as badly as they feared, and have seen an uptick in business the past week or so. Many of their customers have been Mainers, they said, who usually steer clear of Bar Harbor in the summer but who have opted to visit now because the town isn’t crowded with tourists.
Minutolo said that while his bike rental business is only 10 to 15 percent of what it normally would be, he has been selling and servicing bikes — a trend reflected nationwide, according to the Los Angeles Times — from people looking to get outside and avoid mass transit during the COVID era. He said that he had one customer drive all the way from New York to purchase a bike. With constraints on international shipping, however, he is not sure he will be able to maintain his inventory through the end of the year, when the holiday season helps to boost his sales.
“It is a lot of work,” he said of trying to draw customers through the door. “I feel sorry for the hotels. It is hard to see [them] struggle.”
Restaurants — like hotels — are feeling the lack of tourists acutely because they depend on a steady stream of customers. With local hotels far below occupancy and no cruise ships expected to visit at all this summer, West Street Cafe co-owner Kevin DesVeaux said his goal is simply to make it through the year and re-open in 2021.
“We’re trying to survive,” said DesVeaux, who founded the cafe in 2000 and, with his wife Jessica DesVeaux, had a new, larger restaurant built on the site in 2017. “There’s a great deal of uncertainty.”
The couple said they normally have between 60 and 65 employees, but so far this year are down to 27 — only six, including the two owners, are full-time — and they are having a hard time keeping their usual open hours because they can’t find additional help. This is despite the fact that they’ve had to reduce their available indoor seating by about 100 seats — from 170 to 70 — in order to meet physical spacing requirements.
The cafe’s business has been far below the 70 to 75 percent capacity it needs to turn a profit, Kevin DesVeaux said.
“We’re 90 percent down at the moment,” he said. “I can see no way to profitability this year.”
Given the severity of the pandemic, the local business landscape undoubtedly will be different next year, the DesVeaux’ said. Some businesses may never reopen, and those that do likely will make some changes to how they operate, regardless of how long the pandemic lasts. More restaurants will beef up their takeout capacity, as West Street Cafe has done, they said, and shops likely will put more emphasis on online sales.
“We will be different next year,” Jessica DesVeaux said.
“I feel very confident we’ll be back here next year,” Kevin added. “I am an optimist.”
Minutolo also expressed hope for the town’s future, despite how the 2020 tourist season might pan out. He said there always will be an influx of summer visitors in Bar Harbor, but that he hopes the town can continue to diversify its economy by attracting more visitors in the winter and by adding to its roster of larger year-round employers, which include The Jackson Laboratory, Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory and College of the Atlantic.
“We’ve got to find a better balance,” Minutolo said, “but there’s no doubt in my mind we’ll make it through this crisis, too.”