It’s a brutal question, but it needs to be asked: What is the value of Maine’s summer tourist economy – not in dollars, but in human lives?

We already know the money part. According to Maine Revenue Services, Maine hotels and other accommodations took in just over $800 million between May and September of last year, representing 64 percent of the industry’s annual revenue. During the same period, restaurant receipts totaled more than $1.3 billion, almost half their yearly income.

But that was in another time. Now, amid the continued spread of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, the tectonic collision between public safety and Maine’s gasping economy finds us at another summer’s doorstep.

Some of us remain determined to keep our distance from anyone and everyone. Others clamor to throw off the shackles of stay-at-home orders and quarantines and (deep breath) jump back into a modified version of the way life should be.

Who’s right? Who’s wrong?

There’s no simple answer. But there is one common-sense truth: The more out-of-state visitors Maine receives in the next three or four months, the more Maine’s COVID-19 death count – now at 70 – will rise.


Go ahead, call me an alarmist. But before you do, look at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention map showing how states are faring with the pandemic.

You’ll see that northern New England stands out for its relatively low COVID-19 count – as of Saturday, Maine had 566 active cases.

Next, look at Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania – home to the bulk of the tourists who travel to Maine each summer. As of Saturday afternoon, the cumulative number of active COVID-19 cases in these states stood at 542,530 – roughly half the total active cases in the entire country.

Folks, this is not rocket science. As people from those states flock to Maine, some of them inevitably, many even unwittingly, will carry the coronavirus along with them. With that, also inevitably, Maine’s infection and death rates will rise.

As Dr. Nirav Shah, director of Maine’s CDC, put it during his daily briefing on Friday: “Those are the places that visitors would be coming in from. So we’ve got to take a sense of … how we would think about higher numbers of people coming in and what the likelihood is that they may bring the disease with them. It’s a very difficult balance and it’s one we’re pretty actively involved in right now.”

Which is a polite way of saying all hell’s breaking loose.


By week’s end, two lawsuits had been filed in federal court challenging Gov. Janet Mills’ authority to control the inflow of visitors to Maine. One called the governor’s actions “arbitrary and capricious.”

At the same time, Maine’s mandatory 14-day quarantine for people coming into the state has become such an unenforceable boondoggle that on Thursday, Economic and Community Development Commissioner Heather Johnson conceded “it is not necessarily the ideal solution” and effectively downgraded it from the law of the land to an honor system.

Like that’s going to work. Weeks before Memorial Day, Maine was already awash in reports of out-of-staters flocking to southern coastal communities with no face coverings, no social distancing and no apparent clue that as they go en masse, so goes the COVID-19 virus.

It’s been painful to watch. The Mills administration draws a line in the sand – from reopening benchmarks that Maine hasn’t even begun to meet, to dates when restaurants and hotels can resume operations – only to backpedal as that line gets washed away by rising political discontent.

It got so farcical on Friday that the Department of Economic and Community Development’s new guidance on hotels and other lodging – now allowing out-of-state reservations as of June 1 rather than a month later – began, “As the number of COVID-19 cases begins to decrease …”

In fact, as the Portland Press Herald’s Rachel Ohm reported, the number of new COVID-19 cases per day actually went up in the two-week period ending Thursday. A department spokeswoman later conceded the claim “was inadvertent and is being corrected.”


It all smacks of wishful thinking – by business owners legitimately worried about their bottom line if not their outright survival, by politicians worried about triggering an insurrection, even from bozos like Rick Savage, who opened his Sunday River Brewing Co. restaurant in Bethel this month in defiance of an executive order.

The very next day, Savage went up and down lines of anti-Mills protesters in Augusta, shaking countless hands without gloves and wearing no mask. Instant celebrity can make you crazy.

In an interview the same week with News Center Maine (WCHS/WLBZ TV) about Republican pushback on Mills’ reopening plan, state Sen. Robert Foley, R-Wells, said, “I have people frightened to death (that) their life and livelihoods will be gone.”

Interesting choice of words, Senator. Their livelihoods are indeed threatened by this unprecedented shutdown of commercial activity. But their lives? That threat comes from the coronavirus.

Still, as the days grow longer and warmer, the temptation to whistle through the graveyard grows more irresistible.

On Friday, Gallup released a poll showing the number of Americans either completely or mostly isolating themselves – including those in states where stay-at-home orders remained in effect – dropped from a high of 75 percent in early April to 58 percent the week of May 4.


That might be good news to Maine tourism sector while it strains at the bit to salvage something, anything, from the summer of 2020. As the state reopens despite having met none of the widely accepted key criteria for doing so, there is little doubt that traffic on the turnpike will take off in the coming weeks. And with it, more visitors from hot spots to the south will flow into those 12 upstate Maine counties that so far have escape the brunt of COVID-19.

Which brings us back to that grim choice each business owner now faces, a cold calculation based on simple, cause-and-effect reality: A surge in out-of-state visitors this summer, while helpful to the tanking tourist economy, will drive up the number of Mainers who become infected and, yes, the number who will die.

So once again, amid this relative calm before the storm, we must all ask ourselves that gut-wrenching question, one rooted more in basic morality than in seasonal economics:

In the frantic effort to save Vacationland, how many deaths will be too many?

CORRECTION: This column was updated Monday May 18, 2020 at 11:45 a.m. to reflect that state Sen. Robert Foley did not attend the protest in Augusta. 

Related Headlines

Comments are no longer available on this story