Steve Hewins, president and CEO of Hospitality Maine, speaks at a news conference Friday on the Portland waterfront, where hospitality and tourism industry groups called for the state to spend $800 million in federal relief money to support their struggling industry. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

On the same day hospitality and tourism industry leaders demanded more help to save their struggling industry, Gov. Janet Mills accelerated her administration’s reopening plan to allow overnight tourists to visit the state five days sooner than planned.

Trade groups representing Maine’s hospitality and tourism businesses on Friday pitched an $800 million state bailout plan for an industry that they said is on the verge of collapse.

The Maine hospitality, tourism and retail recovery plan would use more than half the $1.25 billion in federal money allocated to the state to pay for expenses related to the coronavirus pandemic.

“Due to the devastation the state’s restrictions are causing, this emergency funding is crucial for business survival,” said Hospitality Maine CEO Steve Hewins.

Maine’s hotels, restaurants, campgrounds, tour operators, retailers and other businesses rely on just a few months in the summer for most of their annual revenue.

“Many business are fighting for survival,” said Maine Tourism Association CEO Tony Cameron. “Some will not open this year and some, unfortunately, will have to close for good.”

The plan is backed by Hospitality Maine, the Maine Tourism Association, the Maine Campground Owners Association, the Retail Association of Maine, Ski Maine and the Maine State Chamber of Commerce.

Mills responded to the announcement by saying she welcomes proposals from all sectors of the Maine economy regarding business losses and would ask her Economic Recovery Committee to take them into account as it works to mitigate economic damage and jumpstart economic recovery.

The Mills administration also revamped its guidelines to allow tourists to begin visiting Maine and stay in paid lodging starting June 26, five days before the date specified under the administration’s original phased reopening plan.

Accelerating the start date would help lodging establishments in a key weekend leading up to the July 4 holiday, the administration said.

But she did not back off the administration’s plan to require most tourists visiting the state to either have a recent negative COVID-19 test or quarantine for 14 days to avoid virus transmission and outbreaks in Maine. That requirement has frustrated many in the state’s sprawling tourism industry, who believe many visitors will not be able or want to get a test before arriving.

“Our plan is working and our administration is working hard to protect the health of Maine people and ensure that our state is a safe place for people to visit this summer,” Mills said in a statement.

“I too, am deeply concerned about our economy. But I can think of nothing more devastating than an outbreak or resurgence of this deadly untreatable virus during the height of tourism season,” she said.

The governor’s spokeswoman and a spokesman for the Department of Administrative and Financial services did not respond when asked how much federal relief the state had spent and whether it would consider using the funding for small business grants.

The groups’ plan includes $710 million in grants to businesses to pay for expenses and payroll, and $50 million to help hospitality, tourism and retail workers cover rent, childcare and transportation.

The plan would direct $15 million to technical assistance and guidance for businesses, $15 million for tourism marketing through the Maine Office of Tourism and $10 million for no-interest loans for workforce training and start-up costs.

Maine restaurants and bars were some of the first businesses to close or serve only takeout in March as the state moved to a stay-at-home mandate. Until this month, lodging businesses could only sell rooms to essential workers.

The pandemic has devastated Maine’s hospitality industry, which lost 42,600 jobs in April, about 61 percent of its workforce, according to the Maine Department of Labor.

Residents of Vermont and New Hampshire are allowed unrestricted travel to Maine, but those states accounted for only 6 percent of Maine’s tourists last year. Some in the lodging industry have clamored for the Mills administration to allow unrestricted tourism from other states, including Massachusetts and New York, which provide the bulk of Maine’s out-of-state visitors but are coronavirus hot spots.

Maine State Chamber of Commerce CEO Dana Connors said the industry and the Mills administration need to work together to reopen state tourism.

“There is too much at risk if we don’t,” Connors said at Friday’s news conference outside DiMillo’s on the Portland waterfront.

Maine hosted about 21 million overnight tourists in 2019, and direct tourism spending overall was $6.5 billion, according to the Maine Office of Tourism.

Hewins said other states have used federal relief funds to help businesses, but did not cite specific examples. He hoped the proposal would start a conversation with the administration.

“We have a big problem that requires a big solution,” Hewins said. “We cannot implement this plan, this is Gov. Mills’ responsibility.”

States can use their coronavirus relief fund to cover necessary expenditures that occurred because of the pandemic, were not accounted for in its most recent budget and were incurred between March 1 and Dec. 30, according to U.S. Department of Treasury.

But states and those cities that have received federal funds have broad flexibility on how they use the funds, including grants and reimbursements to small businesses hurt by the pandemic.

“Governments have discretion to determine what payments are necessary,” the Treasury Department said in a document providing guidance. “A program that is aimed at assisting small businesses with the costs of business interruption caused by required closures should be tailored to assist those businesses in need of assistance.”

The department did not respond to an email asking whether the specific proposals in the recovery plan would be eligible expenditures from the relief fund.

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