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Coronavirus rules for Maine tourists ‘distressing’ for state’s hospitality industry

A sign at the Wells Moody Motel advertises room at the inn in Wells, Maine.
A sign at the Wells Moody Motel advertises room at the inn in Wells, Maine.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

OGUNQUIT, Maine — The fog began to lift as the Atlantic surf slapped the rocks below the 83-year-old Beachmere Inn, where third-generation owner Sarah Diment looked around the lush, oceanfront lawn that once was her childhood playground.

The scene was quintessential New England summer, but with a jarring difference this recent afternoon. At an inn where late June always brought brisk business, the expansive lawn was a quiet, unused space of empty chairs, bare tables, and unopened umbrellas.

Empty lounge chairs on the lawn at the Beachmere Inn.
Empty lounge chairs on the lawn at the Beachmere Inn.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Welcome to Vacationland. Or is it Vacancy Land?

“It’s distressing,” said Diment, who has counted 1,100 cancellations already. “Summertime is basically what Ogunquit uses to get through the rest of the year.”

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In a state where summer tourism is indispensable to the economy, tough COVID-19 restrictions on out-of-state visitors have prompted dire warnings of irreparable harm from many in the Maine lodging business.

“Our industry has come to a full stop because of this virus,” said Nancy White, managing director of the sprawling Cliff House resort in Cape Neddick. “Hasn’t COVID done enough damage to us?”

On Friday, Maine opened its lodgings to all out-of-state visitors, but there’s a daunting barrier. Guests who don’t live in New Hampshire or Vermont must abide by these options: Quarantine for 14 days in Maine before or after checking in, or test negative for COVID from a specimen taken no more than 72 hours before arrival.

A sign near the entrance to Interstate 95 alerted drivers to an emergency shelter at home order in Maine.
A sign near the entrance to Interstate 95 alerted drivers to an emergency shelter at home order in Maine.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

The restrictions apply to “all Maine lodging, campgrounds, seasonal rentals, and other commercial lodging, such as Airbnb,” according to a state government website.

Arrivals from New Hampshire and Vermont are exempt because the rate of active COVID cases there is similar to Maine’s number. But guests from visitor-rich Massachusetts, where infection rates have dropped dramatically, are not.

“Who will want to spend the money to quarantine for 14 nights?” Diment asked. “Summer doesn’t come back in this business. Once it’s gone, it’s gone.”

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Sarah Diment of the Beachmere Inn stood on the porch of one of the resort's buildings.
Sarah Diment of the Beachmere Inn stood on the porch of one of the resort's buildings.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

There also is the testing option, but that means scheduling a test, being tested, waiting for the results, and driving to Maine — all within three days. Several innkeepers described that alternative as impracticable, if not impossible, for out-of-state visitors.

Hotel occupancy is plummeting. Many seasonal staff haven’t been rehired. And innkeepers at century-old resorts and quaint bed-and-breakfasts are worried that the business they lose this year will vanish for good if visitors head elsewhere.

“From a perspective of how Maine is welcoming our visitors, we are definitely going down the wrong path,” Diment said.

In Kennebunkport, the 136-year-old Nonantum Resort has lost 3,600 room nights and $1.5 million in revenue, general manager Tina Hewett-Gordon said. The staff has been cut to 24 from 150, and the occupancy rate for July and August is projected to be 20 percent, down from its usual 90 percent.

At the Nonantum Resort, the porch outside of the main office sat empty.
At the Nonantum Resort, the porch outside of the main office sat empty.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

“What is happening is crippling,” said Hewett-Gordon, who has been waitressing and busing tables in addition to running the hotel. “It’s disheartening, quite honestly. This will be a message that will be difficult to unwind.”

At Cliff House, a 148-year-old resort with 226 rooms and suites, the staff has been cut to 150 from 450. A 20 percent occupancy rate is forecast for June, compared to the typical 75 percent, White said. Not only will the hotel suffer, so will the local businesses that benefit from a steady stream of visitors, she said.

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“Some of the rationale doesn’t make sense,” White said. “Many New Hampshire residents commute to Boston or Massachusetts. And what about all of the day-trippers?”

Governor Janet Mills has defended the restrictions as a way to keep the pandemic at bay.

“I can think of nothing more devastating than an outbreak or resurgence of this deadly, untreatable virus during the height of tourism season,” Mills said this month. “Nothing would be worse for our economy and for the tourism industry, in particular.”

Through Thursday, Maine had counted 103 deaths from the virus, 3,102 confirmed and probable cases, and a per capita rate of 232 cases for every 100,000 people.

By comparison, Massachusetts had 7,963 deaths, 107,837 cases, and a per capita rate of 1,565 per 100,000. However, the state now has the lowest transmission rate in the country, according to RT.live, a website that tracks COVID data.

At the Nonantum Resort, there were no cars in the parking lot across the street.
At the Nonantum Resort, there were no cars in the parking lot across the street.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Since late March, visitors to Massachusetts have been urged to quarantine for 14 days. But where it’s an advisory there, it’s mandatory in Maine.

Out-of-state hotel guests — New Hampshire and Vermont excepted — will be required to sign a compliance form stating that they have quarantined or tested negative. Maine’s innkeepers do not have to ask for proof, and it’s not expected they will.

“I’m not patrolling that. It’s not my responsibility, nor should it be,” Diment said.

The restrictions do not have an expiration date, although state officials have said they will consider extending a quarantine-free welcome as COVID data evolve.

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Steve Hewins, president of the trade group HospitalityMaine, said this week he had e-mailed state officials about the testing plan but did not receive any response from Mills or the tourism office.

“I’m sort of beyond anger. I’m more perplexed,” Hewins said. “There’s not even been a discussion.”

The Maine hospitality industry usually employs 110,000 people, Hewins said. Last summer, 22 million visitors traveled to the state, dwarfing its population of 1.3 million. This summer, only 7 million to 10 million visitors are expected, Hewins said.

A sign in Ogunquit reminded people to "Put on Your Mask."
A sign in Ogunquit reminded people to "Put on Your Mask." Jim Davis/Globe Staff

“The second wave of what is going to come for the state of Maine is the economic collapse of what remains of this industry,” he said.

Hewett-Gordon, the Nonantum Resort manager, said Maine’s requirements are benefiting hoteliers elsewhere, particularly in Massachusetts, where hotels reopened June 8.

At the Chatham Bars Inn on Cape Cod, general manager Gary Thulander said 8,000 reservations have been booked since mid-May.

“Business is picking up dramatically fast,” Thulander said. “The call volume is extraordinary.”

Thulander said it’s difficult to measure how much Maine’s restrictions are affecting the 217-room resort. However, he added, “the stricter guidelines for certain states probably have restricted some travel to those states.”

At the Beachmere in Ogunquit, capital improvements have been put off, the inn is losing money, and the fall season “is starting to wobble,” Diment said.

Still, the Beachmere will survive, she said, even as the reduced staff learns a new way of doing business — wearing masks at all times, airing rooms for hours, attacking bacteria with ultraviolet light, and cleaning linens with ozone technology used in hospitals and nursing homes.

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“I don’t think this will go away as quickly as I had hoped. Normally, this place would be jamming today,” Diment said, gazing across the empty lawn before looking out to sea.

“As hoteliers, we’re used to fixing stuff, but this is out of my hands,” she said with a slight smile. “You can’t fix this.”

The space used for outdoor dining at the Beachmere Inn was nearly empty.
The space used for outdoor dining at the Beachmere Inn was nearly empty.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at brian.macquarrie@globe.com.