Hundreds of Maine’s seasonal businesses should be preparing to open for another busy summer. Millions of tourists should be planning trips and seasonal residents should be getting ready to open up summer homes.

Instead, the state is under virtual lockdown to contain the coronavirus pandemic. Hotels cannot take online reservations, the Canadian border is closed and a two-week quarantine is mandated for nonessential travelers from outside the state. Normally welcoming resort towns are pleading with visitors to stay away, and people with out-of-state license plates have reported hostility and outright harassment from worried locals.

Iconic destinations such as Acadia National Park and some beaches in York County and elsewhere are off-limits to the public. Baxter State Park trails are blocked, and overnight visitors are barred until at least July.

With no firm timeline to restart normal life, insufficient supplies for widespread testing, no COVID-19 vaccine or treatment and steadily rising infections and deaths, all Vacationland can do is hope things get better soon.

“We have guests that contact us on a regular basis, on Facebook and email, that are ready to take their trip,” said Allyson Cavaretta, director of sales and marketing at the Meadowmere Resort in Ogunquit. “It is really day by day – you look forward and hope for the best. I’m cautiously optimistic we will have some semblance of a season. If it will be a good season is really too soon to tell.”

BILLIONS ON THE LINE

The difference between a good and bad summer tourism season has huge implications for Maine’s economy.

Maine had more than 37 million out-of-state visits in 2019, and direct tourism spending amounted to $6.5 billion, according to an annual survey from the Maine Office of Tourism. That’s 10 percent of the state’s gross domestic product. Three-quarters of day and overnight visitors come between May and September.

A man walking along Commercial Street in Portland on Thursday is reflected in the door of a gift shop displaying a closed sign. Commercial Street and the Old Port are popular areas of the city for tourism, which is a major part of the state’s economy. As the coronavirus outbreak continues, the industry is questioning what impact the pandemic will have on tourism this summer. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Almost $802 million was spent on Maine hotels and other accommodations between June and September last year, 64 percent of the yearly total, according Maine Revenue Services, the state’s tax agency. Diners spent more than $1.3 billion in restaurants over the same period, nearly half the annual spending.

It is impossible to predict how badly summer tourism will be damaged by the pandemic.

“I wish we had a crystal ball to know,” said Tony Cameron, president and CEO of the Maine Tourism Association. “I think when it is safe to do so and people are able to travel and bans are lifted, it is unknown what the travel trends might be.”

Maine has vast appeal and is within a six-hour drive of 25 million potential tourists, Cameron said. But some areas where those potential tourists live are coronavirus hot spots.

If out-of-state visitors don’t come in typical numbers this year, he hopes people who live in Maine will consider exploring their home state and patronizing seasonal businesses.

“Hopefully Mainers will take the opportunity to get out and see more of Maine themselves,” Cameron said. “It would be great if things were up and running by June, but I’d hate to speculate on anything.”

Public health experts predict a vaccine is more than a year away and effective COVID-19 treatments will be available no earlier than fall.

Without steadily declining COVID-19 cases, widespread testing, contact tracing and an adequate supply of personal protective equipment, opening up Maine to tourism too soon could trigger more deadly outbreaks and another round of economic shutdown.

That means it could be months before social distancing measures are relaxed and people return to anything close to normal business, let alone plan a family vacation or weekend getaway.

“The public health recovery precedes the economic recovery. I think you have to be very skeptical that will happen by summer,” said University of Southern Maine economics professor Michael Hillard.

Maine hospitality businesses earn 75 percent to 80 percent of their income between Memorial Day and mid-October, Hillard said. Restaurants, bars, hotels and shops have seen revenue evaporate and have been forced to lay off thousands of workers.

A woman walks along Commercial Street in Portland, a hub of the city’s tourism industry, on Thursday. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

“I think there is a 50-50 chance we have anything close to a normal tourism season,” Hillard said. “It will be devastating.”

SEPARATIONLAND

Even if the situation stabilizes in time to save the summer, visiting Maine is likely to be an alien experience.

People may not feel safe enough to risk hotel stays and restaurant meals, said Dan Innis, a hospitality professor at the University of New Hampshire. Businesses will be worried about having a COVID-19 case traced to their establishment, too, Innis said.

“Business owners are going to be cautious, as well,” he said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they open up a little later to make sure.”

If dining rooms and hotels are able to reopen, it likely would require 6-foot distances between tables – and between people in common areas – protective equipment for staff and other safety measures, Innis said. Those steps would create added overhead costs and lower revenue for businesses that already operate on thin margins.

It is also uncertain whether travelers will be able to afford a trip. About 22 million Americans have filed for unemployment benefits since March. Some economists predict a 20 percent unemployment rate by summer.

“People’s jobs aren’t going to come back right away. Consumers are going to ease back toward normal,” Innis said. “People are going to come out of this traveling closer to home, taking shorter stays; they are going to spend less money and less time.”

The American Hotel and Lodging Association predicts the pandemic will cause hotel occupancy rates to plummet to around 25 percent and cost up to 3.4 million lodging-related jobs. The economic fallout will be far worse than the Great Recession of 2008 or the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, it estimates.

Innis thinks it could take two years for America’s tourism industry to recover to its 2019 level.

“This one is a shock; it is like jumping into the ocean in May instead of walking up to your knees and walking out again,” he said. Economic activity now “is stoked by fear of personal health. That completely changes the equation.”

Maine’s tourism industry is wondering what impact the ongoing coronavirus pandemic will have on Maine’s summer tourism and whether cruise ships will return to the Ocean Gateway piers. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

ENDLESS SPRING

The few people still employed at Luke’s Lobster on Portland Pier are filling takeout orders and preparing for when they can reopen. The restaurant plans to space tables farther apart, create an online ordering platform and no-touch payment system, said co-founder Ben Coniff.

“Some of the things we’re doing now will continue to be relevant,” he said. “No matter what happens, there are still going to be plenty of people who choose not to dine in at restaurants.”

Luke’s, which has more than 20 locations in the U.S. and Japan, is waiting on public health officials for guidance and a timeline to safely resume operations.

The company has temporarily shut down its lobster processing plant. It is unlikely to open its seasonal location in Tenants Harbor this year, Coniff said.

“It is going to be tough to think about getting that open this year,” he said. “We are not predicting there is going to be a lot of travel and tourism.”

In regular press briefings and interviews, Gov. Janet Mills and Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, have shied away from addressing what will happen to Maine’s tourism season. A stay-at-home order in place until April 30 could be extended under a state of emergency that now lasts until May 15. 

Mills said in a statement Friday that reopening too quickly may jeopardize Maine lives and further destabilize the economy. The governor has been talking with her counterparts in New Hampshire and Vermont about actions appropriate for northern New England. Details of a reopening plan will be released in the near future, she said.

“My administration, through the Department of Economic and Community Development, has been connecting with individual economic sectors across the state to devise a plan for how we gradually reopen the Maine economy,” Mills said. “Those decisions, of course, are driven first and foremost by the need to protect the public health.”

Bar Harbor, where millions flock every year, is preparing for what comes next. The local chamber of commerce meets weekly to discuss how restaurants, tour operators and shops can achieve physical distancing and still operate, said Executive Director Alf Andersen.

“Everyone is putting these thoughts down to come up with ways to be as safe as possible so we have some kind of successful season,” Andersen said. “I know everyone is preparing for a very different season, for sure.

“The most important thing is we have been really cautious about what we are going to say about the tourism season,” he added. “Public health and safety is the top priority for everyone involved. Let’s not rush and do something that isn’t safe.”

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