Landace Porta, general manager of the Black Point Inn in Scarborough, stands Friday on the deck where people can dine outdoors. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Maine could look a lot more like Maine this summer.

The COVID-19 pandemic that ruined the summer of 2020 appears to be easing, and last week Gov. Janet Mills announced she would be scaling back quarantine requirements and business restrictions.

Tourists and Mainers will once again flock to York County’s beaches, enjoy lobster cookouts, hike the trails in Acadia National Park and crawl the pubs and breweries in Portland.

Expect COVID-19 to be present, but with widespread vaccination the virus may be under enough control that activities can return closer to a pre-pandemic “normal.”

“If every scenario plays out in the best possible way, if there’s minimal vaccine hesitancy, and variants don’t become a big problem, then I think that we are looking at something that resembles normalcy,” said Dr. Meghan May, a microbiology and infectious disease professor at the University of New England.

The Mills administration’s actions last week point to bullish projections for the summer.

The governor announced a reopening plan geared toward tourist season, loosening up many restrictions on May 1, including increasing indoor and outdoor gathering limits, relaxing travel restrictions and giving more leeway for fuller operation of bars and restaurants.

“I’m so excited in the coming months for people coming here, enjoying Maine and all it offers,” Mills said.

Landace Porta, general manager of the Black Point Inn in Scarborough, said the last several weeks of improving case counts in Maine has left her feeling more positive.

“There’s been a change in the sea air,” said Porta, who is planning a full opening of the inn on May 21. “Things are changing quickly enough where people are saying, ‘Wow, this is happening.’ There’s a lot of optimism about travel and socializing.”

Landace Porta, general manager of Black Point Inn, on the deck where people can dine outdoors Friday. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

It won’t be entirely back to normal, though.

Mask mandates will continue for the foreseeable future, Mills said. That means going to a store or restaurant will require a mask, and people at outdoor gatherings will have to wear masks. Some other states, such as Texas and Mississippi, are already lifting mask mandates, in moves that were widely panned by public health experts for giving the virus a better chance to circulate before most people have had a chance to get their COVID-19 shot.

“I suspect we will be wearing masks the rest of this calendar year,” said Dr. Rebecca Weintraub, assistant professor of global health at Harvard University, in a conference call with reporters last week.

Maine’s case counts have declined sharply when compared to mid-January, from a peak of more than 600 per day on a seven-day average, but over the past 10 days have plateaued at about 160 to 165 daily cases on a seven-day average. Vaccinations continue to accelerate, to where now more than 10 percent of the Maine population has been fully vaccinated, and about 20 percent of the state’s population has had at least the first dose. The Biden administration said vaccine supplies should continue to ramp up to the point where all adults should have access to vaccination by the end of May.

May, the UNE professor, said even if the virus is tamped down, it doesn’t mean it will be safe to gather in large crowds, especially indoors. She said she fears that people who are tired of following pandemic restrictions may resume risky activities too soon, before vaccinations have fully had a chance to squelch transmission.

“I really worry about April school vacation for us. People may feel like they’ve been trapped inside for so long, so they say, ‘Let’s go to Disney,'” May said.

‘HERD IMMUNITY’

Joshua Michaud, associate director of global health policy for Kaiser Family Foundation, a national health policy research center, said the boost in vaccine supply by the end of May bodes well for the summer in the United States. The virus appears to have a seasonal effect, circulating less in the summer months, and in addition to vaccine supply, some people will have natural immunity from prior infections.

“We are going to be approaching levels where the virus will have a hard time finding bodies to infect,” Michaud said.

It’s difficult to say when “herd immunity” will be reached – experts predict that will occur when 70 to 85 percent of the population either has gotten the vaccine or been infected with COVID-19. But when “herd immunity” is obtained, that means the virus will have little chance to transmit, and will be largely stamped out.

But that doesn’t mean COVID-19 will vanish. The pandemic may be over this summer in the U.S., but COVID-19 could still be endemic, Michaud said.

An infectious disease that is endemic means that it’s possible to see outbreaks of the virus, especially among those who choose to be unvaccinated, but the outbreaks will be contained and there will no longer be a need for large-scale public health restrictions that have been in place for more than a year.

Current examples of endemic diseases in Maine would be chickenpox and whooping cough, where there’s enough unvaccinated people to cause an outbreak, but because most people are immunized, the diseases don’t sweep through the population.

TOURIST SEASON

Steve Hewins of HospitalityMaine, which represents the restaurant and lodging industry, said the summer tourist season should rebound, with lots of pent-up demand.

“I’m hearing there’s strong advance booking at hotels and weddings are off the charts,” he said.

But Hewins cautions that finding seasonal employees is going to be a persistent problem. Trump administration-era restrictions on foreign workers remain in place, and hospitality industry staff members who lost their jobs last year and found other employment may not be coming back.

HospitalityMaine is launching a job retention and recruiting campaign this spring, hoping to avoid acute shortages.

Landace Porta, general manager of Black Point Inn, in the dining room Friday. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Porta, of the Black Point Inn, said having enough employees is always a challenge, but the inn will start with a smaller crew and then build out to a larger workforce by July. Porta said expanded outdoor dining likely will remain in place because, after having tried it in 2020, many diners discovered they enjoy the experience.

In coastal York County towns that rely heavily on tourism, business owners and municipal officials are cautiously optimistic that this summer will feel a little more normal and be a lot busier than the last one.

Restaurants in York will again be allowed to set up tables on sidewalks and in parking lots. Stores will have outdoor displays and signs hung around town will remind people to wear masks and practice social distancing.

“I think you’re going to see all the coastal towns be the Wild West. People are sick of being home and want to get out and go places,” said York Town Manager Stephen Burns. “I think it will be more crowded than last year.”

In Old Orchard Beach, the chamber of commerce is already fielding calls about people planning family reunions and vacations this summer. Motels are booking rooms and there’s a sense in town that tourists are eagerly anticipating vacations at the beach, said Kim Howard, executive director of the Old Orchard Beach Chamber of Commerce.

“Last year was a unique summer, but we did have people here and businesses were open. I’m anticipating we’ll be able to do that again this year,” she said. “My mantra for this year is cautiously optimistic.”

The big unknown is whether French Canadian tourists will be able to return to Old Orchard Beach. For generations, the town has been a popular destination for visitors from Quebec, and their absence last year had a noticeable impact.

It’s unclear when the U.S. and Canadian governments will reduce border restrictions. Vaccine supplies in Canada are far lower than in the United States and are not expected to be plentiful until late summer.

“It remains a big question mark for this summer,” Howard said.

THE RISK OF VARIANTS

With COVID-19 this summer, a major concern is whether variants of the virus spread rapidly and overwhelm the positive effects of rising vaccinations.

So far only a handful of detected cases in Maine are from the U.K. and South African variants of the virus, and state health officials hope that vaccinations will outpace the variants, prohibiting the mutations from gaining a foothold here.

But the variants are one of the largest risks to the progress that’s being made against the virus. The virus mutates to be more contagious and to better escape immunity.

Weintraub, the Harvard global health professor, said even though the United States has a robust supply of COVID-19 vaccines, much of the rest of the world doesn’t, which spells trouble for global containment of the virus.

“What I predict is there will be outbreaks of new variants in other parts of the world, and those variants will cross over the United States’ borders,” Weintraub said.

May, at UNE, pointed out that drug manufacturers can make booster shots to better protect against the variants.

“The good news is that we know how to make the vaccines, and we can make variations to them without repeating the entire process,” May said. “We can adapt these vaccines as we go.”

She said more people seem to be willing to get a vaccine, as word of its effectiveness spreads and people hear positive reviews from friends and family who get the shot. Acceptance of the vaccine has been high among older people, but May said that doesn’t surprise her because they have been most at risk of COVID-19, and many remember when infectious diseases like measles and polio were common, before vaccination made them extremely rare.

A Pew Research poll released last week shows overall acceptance of COVID-19 vaccines has improved from 60 percent in November to 69 percent in March.

“We’re about to find out how real the vaccine hesitancy is,” May said.

How the pandemic evolves this summer, and whether it worsens or continues to fade, will raise the stakes for many tourism activities – especially large-scale gatherings. The Yarmouth Clam Festival and Moxie Festival in Lisbon have already been canceled this summer, but the Maine Lobster Festival in Rockland is still possible in August.

A festival board meeting is slated for March 29 that could determine the fate of the popular event, said festival president Celia Crie Knight, in an interview with the Camden Herald.

Large events will still be difficult to pull off even with the relaxed restrictions, because 6-foot physical distancing measures still need to be in place, and masks must be worn when not eating or drinking.

Michaud, at Kaiser Family Foundation, said indoor events will have to be managed closely, with restrictions in place because transmission of the virus is more likely indoors. He said it’s possible some venues would require attendees to be vaccinated, even if they don’t have to show proof.

“I could see at some events there would be an app where you check a box and say, “Yes, I’m vaccinated,” when you buy your ticket,” Michaud said.

One popular outdoor venue, Funtown Splashtown USA in Saco, is expected to open for the first time in about 18 months.

The pandemic hit weeks before the family-owned park was scheduled to open last year. With so many unknowns about the virus and concerns about keeping employees and guests safe, the park owners decided not to open.

This year, the park has submitted a detailed reopening plan to the state and anticipates opening later this spring. But things will look a bit different, with precautions in place for social distancing and shorter hours, said Cory Hutchinson, the park’s general manager.

When Hutchinson wears a Funtown sweatshirt while doing errands, he is often stopped by people who tell him they miss their annual visits and ask if the park will be open this year.

“We just want a little normal and what’s more normal than taking a trip to Funtown Splashtown? It’s a traditional thing,” Hutchinson said. “It makes you feel normal and people are very much anticipating that.”

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