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NAPLES, Maine — Ross DeCoster beamed from behind his face mask inside the Lakeside Dairy Bar on the Naples Causeway, a series of tiny shops, bars and restaurants that normally begin to see the tourist bustle start on Memorial Day weekend.
Ice cream sales were up 30 percent beyond his expectations over the Memorial Day weekend, especially on Friday, when temperatures reached into the 80s on a sunny day with a slight breeze over nearby Long Lake.
“We had 300 orders on Friday, which is as good as any Saturday,” he said, noting that he and his wife, who co-own the ice cream stand, worked long hours, but it was worth it.
But other business owners said the same wasn’t true throughout the region. Even though Naples is in rural Maine, like neighboring lake towns Bridgton and Harrison, all three are in Cumberland County. That’s one of four counties not allowed to reopen early under Gov. Janet Mills’ rural reopening initiative because it has community spread of the coronavirus.
Some local businesspeople argue that the area, which is part of Maine’s western mountains and lakes region, is rural and very different from Portland and should be allowed freer operations.
Businesspeople in the region circulated a letter to Mills and Maine’s U.S. senators on May 15 urging them to separate it from the Portland region that runs from South Portland through Windham. They asked that Bridgton, Harrison, Naples, Casco, Raymond and Sebago be separated because they have relatively low population densities and lower per-capita income.
“We don’t need the kind of clampdown in a higher density location imposed on an area with a lot of fresh air and larger grounds,” said Diane Darnielle, co-owner of Nawandyn Estate, a 41-acre estate with three rental homes.
The letter asked the lawmakers to advance the start date for permitting non-residents to lodge in Maine by four days from July 1 to June 27. It suggested that out-of-state visitors be allowed to bypass a 14-day quarantine required for out-of-state visitors by entering Maine and go directly to pre-arranged lodging.
If they stay less than 14 days they could go directly home, without stopping along the route. The current mandate requires non-residents to shelter for 14 days in Maine, but not at a hotel or campground unless they own property in the latter.
The area has more than a dozen campgrounds. All of them are hurting because of the quarantine and are “not sure if they can have a season this year,” Susan Mercer, the executive director of the Bridgton Lakes Region Chamber of Commerce, said.
“This wasn’t a great weekend for local businesses,” said Mercer, who is working five hours a week despite being furloughed.
Mills has hinted at broader rural reopenings and different approaches to tourist quarantines, but has yet to act. Asked during a press conference Friday whether she might modify quarantine restrictions in recreational areas, Mills said she would “be very cautious about doing this because of the likelihood of social distancing being ignored.”
Health officials and the state need to find ways to keep people safe and boost the economy, John Williams, executive director of the Oxford Hills Chamber of Commerce, said.
“We have to be willing to look at the existing environment in Maine and to realize that tourism is our largest industry,” he said. “We depend on out-of-state visitors.”
Oxford County is next to the lakes region in Cumberland County and has several lakes of its own. Some non-residents came to open camps over the holiday weekend, but others didn’t come because of the quarantine, he said. Restaurants were open and drew good business, but Oxford Casino and the Oxford Plains Speedway, both of which would have attracted thousands of visitors over the weekend, were closed, he said.
Williams suggested that the state create additional separate categories, including for sporting camps. A fly fisherman since he was a boy, he fondly remembered his time at Grant’s Kennebago Camps in Rangeley, which he visited for decades.
John Blunt, co-owner of Grant’s, said four people rather than the usual 40 came over the holiday weekend. Some 70 percent of his visitors are non-residents. The camp is set up with separate cabins and delivers meals to them, Blunt said. But so far, the important June bookings are only at 40 percent, less than half the normal number.
“If we don’t make it through June with only Maine clientele, we will close in July and August and open the second week of September,” he said. “Maine people are already here.”
Watch: Janet Mills shares changes for rural businesses