Employees work at The Goldenrod in York on Wednesday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

YORK BEACH — The sweet smell of boiling sugar and molasses drifts from The Goldenrod as two candy makers work behind the front window. A family stops to watch, snapping photos as the taffy puller churns and twists the golden candy.

It almost looks like any other summer.

But inside the stools have been removed from in front of the marble soda fountain counter and the dining room sits empty and quiet. Employees, faces covered by masks embroidered with the restaurant name, linger behind the counter waiting for customers.

The Goldenrod, the oldest restaurant in the state, opened 125 years ago and is a traditional stop for visitors looking for a meal or to stock up on penny candy and taffy “Kisses.” Normally crowded with people by this time of year, it was nearly empty last week.

“At times like this, it gives you a little bit of comfort that we’ve survived numerous world wars and pandemics and the Depression,” said owner David Peck. “We’re still standing, but it’s not getting any easier.”

Peck estimates the business has already lost hundreds of thousands of dollars so far this year. He hired less than half the number of employees he usually does and loses some each day because he doesn’t have enough hours for them.

“Last year on this day, we served over 1,200 people,” he said. “We’ll be very happy if we serve 60 today.”

The summer season in York and other coastal Maine towns is off to a vastly different start this year because of the coronavirus and restrictions on visitors from out of state. Towns normally hopping with visitors after Memorial Day are strangely quiet. Local business owners are bracing for a dramatic drop in revenue and worry they won’t survive the summer without an influx of tourists.

Local officials say it’s too early to predict how big of an economic hit the region will take from the sharp decline in tourism to start the season. Some businesses in York are still on the fence about opening this year, putting hundreds of seasonal jobs in jeopardy.

Dave Peck, the owner of The Goldenrod, in the dining room of the 125-year-old restaurant in York on Wednesday. Peck who started working at the restaurant in 1976, said that last year during this time they would serve hundreds of people a day and now they are lucky if they hit 60. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“We’re not getting the big crowds like we have every other year,” said York Town Manager Stephen Burns. “The things everyone knows are different now.”

While the state is gradually reopening, York County is among the three counties with the tightest restrictions in place because the virus continues to spread in the community, according to state officials. York County has the second highest number of confirmed cases of COVID-19, with 446 of the total 2,793 cases, and there have been 11 deaths from the disease. 

York has had 32 confirmed cases, according to the Maine CDC. An outbreak of 13 cases was reported earlier this month at Eldredge Lumber & Hardware.

Many of the tourists and seasonal residents who come to York and other beach towns in York County are residents of Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey, where the virus is far more widespread than it has been in Maine.

Last week, Gov. Janet Mills announced an alternative to the 14-day quarantine requirement for out-of-state visitors that had kept many people away. Beginning June 26, visitors from most states will not have to comply with the quarantine if they have tested negative for COVID-19 within 72 hours of arriving in Maine. Visitors from New Hampshire and Vermont, which both of low case counts like Maine, are exempt entirely from those restrictions.

Burns said town managers from the area have been in close contact with state officials about how to reopen safely. During a recent Zoom call, Mills was looking for ideas on how to encourage safe behavior, enforce the quarantine and “prevent southern Maine from being a big, giant hot spot in the summer,” he said.

A mostly empty parking lot in York on Wednesday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

While it seemed like the governor was worried about a “big flare-up” in the area, Burns said local health officials report fewer positive tests and no hospitalizations at York Hospital in the past two weeks. While waiting for restrictions to loosen, the town is making adjustments to help prop up businesses waiting for tourists and to protect people who do come to the beach to visit.

Tables on sidewalks outside restaurants and racks of clothing in front of stores, once taboo in York, are now the norm. The public playground at Short Sands Beach is closed, signs direct foot traffic in a one-way pattern around the public restrooms, and newly hired beach ambassadors will soon roam the town to remind people to social-distance. The Fun-O-Rama arcade, a popular beachfront attraction for more than a half century, is closed.

But there are also signs that tourists will come, giving business owners a glimmer of hope that the summer season won’t be entirely lost. Hotels and campgrounds are taking more reservations for July and August. At the York Region Chamber of Commerce visitor center, an increasing number of people have been stopping by to pick up information from displays set up outside the building, which is temporarily closed to the public.

“People have been cooped up and tired of this thing for so long, I really think people will come out,” said Holly Roberts, the chamber’s executive director. “As long as the beach is here, I don’t think people will ever stay away.”

‘IT’S A GHOST TOWN’

Tourism has been a critical component of York’s economic base for more than 100 years. For generations tourists have flocked to York’s beaches, oceanfront amusements and Nubble Light. During summer, the population swells from about 15,000 to 40,000. The chamber of commerce estimates 60 percent of those visitors come from Massachusetts and New York.

A mannequin wears a mask outside of The Beach Funatic store in York on Wednesday.

Before the turn of the last century, people eager to get away from big cities would travel by stagecoach and carriages – and later steam train and electric trolleys – for a monthlong stay near the beach. Generations of families have visited seasonal homes, which are the primary driver for the town’s tax base.

The Union Bluff Hotel, built in 1868 after an explosion of tourism following the Civil War, sits perched on the bluffs overlooking the beach. Typically bustling with visitors who come from all over the country, it’s been quiet in the two weeks since it reopened following a three-month shutdown because of COVID-19.

“It’s dramatic,” owner Brent Merritt said of the change since last year. “It’s worse than we could imagine.”

The 70-room hotel, a popular spot for destination weddings, has already lost 35 of 60 weddings this season and the remaining ones booked for fall may also end up being rescheduled to next year. The hotel has lost more than $2 million from canceled or rescheduled weddings and the rooms associated with the events. It has lost another $640,000 from canceled rooms.

The hotel’s restaurant is offering takeout and outside dining, but there aren’t many people around to eat there.

“It’s a ghost town. There are several hotels in the area that bring in so many people each year that visit the shops and restaurants,” Merritt said. “If they are closed, there aren’t many people coming in.”

Social distancing signs and a rope to help customers stay apart inside The Goldenrod in York on Wednesday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Merritt, who employs 150 people year-round and hasn’t cut employees, feels handcuffed by restrictions on lodging that require people from states other than New Hampshire and Vermont to quarantine for 14 days before coming to the hotel or, starting June 26, to test negative for COVID-19 within 72 hours before arriving.

If something doesn’t change soon, it could be devastating for many local businesses, Merritt said.

“Our summer is going to be gone pretty soon and there’s no recovery from that,” he said. “We use our summer to get through the winter. We’re in jeopardy of losing the winter as well.”

BUSINESSES WORRY ABOUT FUTURE

Strips of red tape mark off 6-foot increments outside of Whispering Sands Gifts. Racks of York Beach sweatshirts and T-shirts sit on the sidewalk, attracting an occasional shopper last Wednesday afternoon. The gift shop is one of about three dozen businesses in town that worked with the police department to shift retail displays or dining outside after the Board of Selectmen decided to give them more flexibility this summer.

Burns, the town manager, said selectmen held a virtual meeting with about 20 business owners a month ago to talk about how to get through the summer.

Social distancing signs and a rope to help customers stay apart inside The Goldenrod in York on Wednesday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“Their message to the Board of Selectmen was they’re trying to survive 2020 to get to Memorial Day 2021,” he said. “A lot of these businesses don’t have the reserves. Their fear is how do we survive this.”

Jane Thomson, a co-owner of the Whispering Sands Gifts, opened the shop May 8 for curbside pickup and began allowing shoppers inside on June 1. So far, it’s been far quieter than past years.

Thomson hopes that business will pick up as hotels open and more people from out-of-state come to town. But she also worries about keeping herself and her employees safe from the virus as they interact with customers who may be traveling from areas with higher numbers of coronavirus cases. Employees and shoppers must wear masks in the store.

“It feels odd because for two months we were in our houses not doing anything. Now we’re meeting people every day,” she said. “It makes you nervous because you don’t know where they’ve been and what they’ve been doing. It’s good to be open, but you worry about what happens next.”

But Thomson is hopeful it won’t be as bad as some fear.

“It’s not going to be a normal summer, but I think it will be good,” she said.

John Biagioni, the owner of The Candy Corner in York, stands for a portrait outside of his shop on Wednesday. Biagioni, who has owned the store for over 30 years, said he doesn’t think they will be allowing customers inside this summer. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

A couple of blocks away, John Biagioni is also worried about the health of his employees, who include his wife, daughter and grandson. Together they run The Candy Corner, an old-fashioned candy shop that has been in business in York Beach for 37 years. This year, customers won’t be able to walk inside to peek into glass display cases.

Rows of chocolates and candies are now displayed in the large front windows. Signs taped to the window explain that curbside shopping is the safest way the business can operate. Biagioni sits in a chair on the sidewalk with a clipboard in his lap, ready to take candy orders that are packed inside by employees and passed to customers through a window.

Biagioni said his business is “hanging in there,” but he thinks the biggest problem this summer will be fewer people around in the evenings. Usually people will come out for shopping, dining and amusement rides after a long day on the beach, he said, but now people are only coming for the day. This year, York’s Wild Animal Kingdom will open only its zoo, leaving the Ferris wheel and other rides still.

“The only worry we have is the safety of our employees and family,” Biagioni said, pausing to say hello to a passing couple who ask how he is doing.

“Well, we’re still here,” he said.

SUMMER BUSTLE MISSING

At a table on the corner outside of The Goldenrod, friends Mindy Hurd and Megan Hutar looked over menus while waiting to place their order. They ventured to York Beach from New Hampshire for lunch, but found they were largely alone. Diners sat at a couple of nearby tables and people would occasionally walk by, but the typical summer bustle was missing.

“It’s weird seeing York’s Wild Animal Kingdom closed,” Hurd said. “It’s still not lively here. I’ve never seen that parking lot so empty.”

Peck, from The Goldenrod, said he’s made the adjustments he can to try to attract business, but there’s not much more he can do until the state eases restrictions. The town allowed him to put tables out on the sidewalk, but he doesn’t have patios or a parking lot to expand to. On Monday, the Board of Selectmen will consider his request to close County Road, which runs alongside the restaurant, to allow businesses to use that space.

Last month Peck removed more than half of the tables from the dining room in preparation for indoor dining starting June 1. But a few days before, Gov. Mills announced indoor dining would not be allowed in York County because of community transmission of the virus and an increase in hospitalizations.

Rebecca Haley, a server at The Goldenrod, takes an order from Megan Hutar, right, of and Mindy Hurd, center, at a table outside of the 125-year-old restaurant in York on Wednesday. Both Hurd and Hutar came up from New Hampshire to spend the afternoon in York. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Peck was – and is – frustrated by that move and wishes the governor would visit York to see how businesses are struggling.

“That really killed us. We had built up our staff and we were ready to go,” he said. “We’re fighting really hard to keep people working and keep the business surviving.”

Peck, who secured a loan through the Paycheck Protection Program, usually hires from then 200 seasonal employees, but could only take on 96 employees this summer. Many are leaving as they find other jobs with more hours to offer.

The Goldenrod can sell up to 100,000 pounds of taffy in a season, but Peck said “we certainly won’t come close to that this year.” He declined to share specific estimates of lost sales, saying only that it’s “hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

“My goal is to get my employees paid and it’s a struggle,” he said.

Roberts, from the chamber of commerce, said there are signs business is starting to pick up as the Fourth of July draws closer. Tourists have arrived in town and the chamber is fielding lots of calls from people interested in visiting the area. She’s seeing more and more out-of-state license plates and there was a large turnout for the chamber’s first farmers market of the season last week.

“We’re hoping that’s a sign for what summer will bring,” Roberts said. “We can only hope.”

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