Through the summer season, Maine and New Hampshire presented themselves as safe tourism destinations with some of the lowest active coronavirus case counts in the country, but the political conversation around reopening has been far different.
The two states and neighboring Vermont have the lowest per-capita case rates among states, according to The New York Times. The situation has been most serious in New Hampshire, which had 435 virus-related deaths as of Saturday, more than three times the count in Maine.
The states’ challenges have been common. They face similar projected state budget shortfalls into 2021 as revenue generated by their lucrative tourism industries plunged this summer, while a majority of deaths in New Hampshire and Maine have been linked to long-term care facilities.
But reopening politics have been more heated in Maine, where critics of Gov. Janet Mills’ strategy have looked west to New Hampshire as an example of how it should have gone. But while reopening between the states has differed, the two states are on a similar recovery path with Maine tracking better by many measures toward summer’s end.
Consumer spending in Maine is down 6.4 percent from the beginning of the year, while it is down 7 percent in New Hampshire, according to Opportunity Insights’ economic recovery tracker, which tracks spending through credit card data. Time spent outside the home has been consistently higher in Maine during the pandemic and travel for retail and recreation has been higher in Maine since the summer, according to Google data.
But Gov. Chris Sununu of New Hampshire has not weathered nearly the same level of criticism from opponents and tourism officials. New Hampshire is widely seen as being less restrictive than Maine. The difference may come down to how the two leaders communicated during the pandemic and what reopened faster, though polling shows residents in both states largely approve of how their governors have performed.
Shifting requirements for out-of-state visitors frustrated and confused some Maine tourism industry members, Stuart Arnett, a former New Hampshire economic development commissioner who served under three governors from 1998 to 2006, said in late July.
“In New Hampshire, the messaging has been very controlled,” he said. “It seems like some of the unofficial political stuff [in Maine] has just made the messaging to figure out what is going on a little more difficult.”
Mills, a Democrat, has let health officials take the lead in pandemic messaging, although she often announces major policy updates. She has been hounded by Republicans and tourism industry members over her reopening plan, particularly for not exempting Massachusetts and Rhode Island residents from a 14-day quarantine requirement.
Mills has defended the plan in fiery terms at times, accusing minority Republican lawmakers who pointed to Maine not allowing Massachusetts as caring “more about Massachusetts money” than lives. Her administration has said that science guides reopening. Vocal criticisms from Republicans in Maine may have contributed to confusion, Arnett said.
Sununu, by contrast, usually leads New Hampshire’s weekly updates with health officials alongside him. They sometimes veer into political territory. A Thursday briefing included the Republican hitting legislative Democrats for blocking federal charter school grants — a key part of his education platform — while detailing growing interest in virtual learning.
The governor reopened most industries by the end of June. He reopened New Hampshire to all New England visitors on July 2. He has only required masks for gatherings of 100 people or more. Mills has pursued a more gradual reopening, though she has often edited her timeline.
Mills first allowed New Hampshire and Vermont residents to visit without restrictions before doing the same for New York, New Jersey and Connecticut residents on July 1. She has required mask enforcement in places like large retail businesses and lodging sites in bigger cities and coastal communities.
While consumer spending is down less in Maine, some of the most hard-hit businesses have recovered quicker in New Hampshire. Spending is down 32.8 percent at restaurants and hotels in Maine relative to January. It is down just 18.9 percent in New Hampshire.
“New Hampshire’s approach has certainly been different,” said Tony Cameron, executive director of the Maine Tourism Association, adding that the lack of Massachusetts residents was a serious blow to the state’s tourism industry. “It’s been a lot less restrictive.”
On Thursday, Sununu said watching other states roll out their reopening plans helped shape his own. Watching Massachusetts was particularly important, he said, because the restrictions the state put in place could send residents directly into New Hampshire.
Tourism is a small but mighty economic driver in both states, accounting for over 65,000 jobs in both states in 2018 and generating billions of dollars in visitor spending, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce and state data. They compete for a similar pool of tourists and have advertised themselves as safe destinations.
John Nyhan, president of the Hampton Chamber of Commerce along the state’s narrow strip of coastline and a member of Sununu’s economic reopening task force, said the state’s approach has allowed businesses flexibility in how they meet the state’s universal guidelines.
That has led visitors to feel like they can visit without fear of overreaching guidelines, said Christopher Bellis, president of the Mt. Washington Valley Chamber of Commerce and innkeeper at the Cranmore Inn in North Conway. But it has also led to overcrowding in some spots, and he said it is not clear if the guidelines are stringent enough, he said.
Even if recovery is slow, having more cautious reopening strategies than many other states will likely benefit both Maine and New Hampshire in the long term, said Simon Hudson, a professor who studies tourism for the University of South Carolina.
“They’ll see what’s called a ‘halo effect,’” Hudson said, “where visitors won’t forget that Maine and New Hampshire did a good job focusing on people and health and will see them as safe places to visit.”