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Maine's Seasonal Businesses Feeling Economic Effects Of The Coronavirus

Pier Fries in Old Orchard Beach, Maine, was open and serving recently, but  a few restaurants have announced they will close permanently.
Pier Fries in Old Orchard Beach, Maine, was open and serving recently, but a few restaurants have announced they will close permanently.

Maine has seen one of the country's lowest rates of hospitalization and deaths from COVID-19, and the lowest in the entire Northeast.

But its economy relies heavily on summer visitors — many from states where the virus is still rampant. With Memorial Day approaching, tourism businesses are worried summer may be over before it has begun.

In the historic seaside summertime playground of Old Orchard Beach, it's spruce-up time. Workers are starting to open up the fry shacks, pizza parlors, and the town's many low-rise hotels.

At the Waves Oceanfront resort, workers like Raksmey Yi and owner Ken Lafayette also have something else to worry about: the coronavirus. As lawnmowers and leaf blowers buzzed around them, they discussed set-up strategies that could help with social distancing.

"So we're keeping some of the pools closed, we're not opening all of our pools," Lafayette said. "It's about the social distancing on the pool deck."

They will tell people "you can't sit on the deck, only swim, in and out," Yi said, which drew a laugh.

But when Yi suggests that those who want to sunbathe should head to the beach, Lafayette points out another concern: for now, at least, it's a "walking beach" where people must keep moving or face a possible citation.

Such are the new concepts of the COVID-19 era that Maine's tourism leaders have to contend with.

In March, Lafayette took a significant loan to buy a new property, based on its long history of repeat customers from Canada. But now President Trump has sealed the border indefinitely.

Lafayette said sending back deposits has become almost a full-time job, and he's lost bookings worth at least half a million dollars.

"So I almost feel like a failure," he said. "My brother will tell me it's not my fault, my wife tells me it's not my fault. But [with] all the optics and gauges that I use, it's just demoralizing."

And it's discouraging as well for the 80-plus seasonal workers he'd planned for, whose job prospects are now uncertain. Tourists spend more than $6 billion a year here, supporting about one in seven jobs.

The cascade of economic effects is being felt up and down the coast and far inland too, in an area called "The Forks," for instance, at the confluence of two major rivers where Suzie Hockmeyer pioneered the state's whitewater rafting industry back in the 1970s.

"We're looking right down the gun barrel like a lot of people are," Hockmeyer said.

Her river adventure resort, Northern Outdoors, should be ramping up for the season now — opening up the inn, cabins, campgrounds, restaurant and brewery. More than 100 workers make a buck here at the height of most seasons, with some 10,000 visitors taking on the rapids.

But the inn is empty and the rafts are still in storage. Hockmeyer's trying to figure out how to maintain social distancing through all her operations, including on the water.

"A boat is 16-feet-long, and it has four different thwarts," she said. "So if you kept people in the same household in the first few thwarts, you'd probably get almost a 6-foot distance between the guide and the people out front. It's possible we'll have to put a mask on the guide."

If they even get the chance, that is.

Commercial lodging in Maine is mostly shut down, except for essential workers. That changes next month, but visitors from out-of-state will have to quarantine in place for two weeks before doing anything else.

The hospitality industry said few tourists would be willing to take that on, and the policy's led to thousands of cancellations. Leaders are begging state officials to modify or lift the restriction.

Heather Johnson, Maine's commissioner of economic development, said the state is working with industry to design a multi-pronged strategy, including expanded testing for the virus, that could change the structure of the quarantine requirement.

Much depends on the pandemic's progress in hard-hit Massachusetts, perhaps the single biggest contributor to Maine's tourist population. Johnson said it's a mistake to think an economy can thrive without robust public health protections.

"I don't think there's an either-or proposition here," she said. "I think this will be a multi-layered response, and will take communities, industry and local leadership, which we're seeing a lot of."

Johnson adds that recent research shows tourists planning future travel are looking for experiences that include outdoors "assets" in areas where there is space and strong safety practices. That portends well for the fall and next summer, she said.

"We think that lines up really well with the Maine brand," she said. But, she adds,"we are not giving up on summer."

Some businesses have though. One theme park in southern Maine said it won't reopen until next year, some restaurants say the same, and a few have already announced they will close permanently.

Tourist towns like Old Orchard Beach are experimenting with ways to meet the needs of the day: closing streets to cut down on the density of sidewalk crowds, coordinating beach openings so no one area gets overwhelmed, creating new cleaning regimes for all-important public restrooms.
Fred Bever / Maine Public Radio
Tourist towns like Old Orchard Beach are experimenting with ways to meet the needs of the day: closing streets to cut down on the density of sidewalk crowds, coordinating beach openings so no one area gets overwhelmed, creating new cleaning regimes for all-important public restrooms.

Meantime, tourist towns like Old Orchard are experimenting with ways to meet the needs of the day: closing streets to cut down on the density of sidewalk crowds, coordinating beach openings so no one area gets overwhelmed, creating new cleaning regimes for all-important public restrooms.

On a recent day, Rocco Ferraiuolo was selling pizza as usual at his high-profile takeout shop on the town's main drag.

"The world is crazy now, who was suspecting this?" he asked, wearing a mask and gloves as he floured and shaped pizza rounds. He said he's worried about making the rent. But he has some hope too.

"You know, I think if everybody does the right thing, masks, the gloves, this and that, everybody can work,"Ferraiuolo said. "Everywhere, you know? In every shop."

Another restaurant owner said it's not time to think outside of the box anymore; it's time for a whole new box.

Copyright 2020 Maine Public. To see more, visit Maine Public.

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