Traffic across Maine largely returned to 2019 levels over Labor Day weekend, marking the first major holiday weekend during which travel reached pre-pandemic highs.
The rise in traffic at the end of the summer came as COVID-19 cases in Maine remain high but reflects how many Mainers and regional travelers are returning to more normal habits after limiting travel for more than a year during the pandemic.
The return to normal was most notable on the Maine Turnpike, which saw more than 1.05 million transactions between Friday and Monday, up about 12 percent compared with 2020 and 1 percent up from 2019, according to data from the turnpike authority. The total will increase slightly when the agency finishes counting image tolls.
There was variation in traffic levels across the state. The total number of cars traveling through the Maine Department of Transportation’s 70 count stations across the state was down 3 percent compared with 2019, though all but a handful of measurement points still saw an increase in vehicles compared to 2020.
It was a marked difference compared with Memorial Day weekend this year. By then, travel began to rebound from a 2020 nadir, but vehicle counts were still down 8 percent at transportation department sites compared to pre-pandemic baseline.
Unlike Memorial Day, when traffic rebounded more in rural parts of the state than the traditional tourism centers in southern Maine, there were few geographic patterns in the municipalities that saw the most significant increases this weekend. Brunswick saw the largest jump compared with 2019, according to state data, with a nearly 22 percent increase, coinciding with the return of the Great State of Maine Air Show, which was held for the first time in five years.
Several other midcoast Maine towns saw increases compared with pre-pandemic levels, as did Lewiston, where traffic was up 7.3 percent compared with 2019. But Portland travel was still 6.6 percent lower than two years ago, according to transportation department data.
Turnpike transactions were likewise lower in the Portland suburbs, with both the Jetport and the Maine Mall toll booths recording fewer transactions than they did two years ago. Most of the increase in transactions on the turnpike was accounted for by the York Toll Plaza and toll booths at both ends of I-295 in Scarborough and Gardiner.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised people who are not vaccinated to avoid travel over the holiday weekend amid a surge in COVID-19 cases nationwide. In Maine, infections have more than doubled over the past two weeks, with the case rate here now the highest in New England.
But Maine is also among the states with the greatest share of its population vaccinated. As of late August, nearly 77 percent of adults and 66 percent of all Mainers had completed their course of the vaccine, according to federal data.