A motorcyclist drives past a picnic table set up on Cottage Street in downtown Bar Harbor on May 21, 2020. Local businesses and town officials are working on a plan to let restaurants and shops conduct business outside on public property in hopes of boosting sales this summer. Tourism industry officials fear that COVID-related concerns, and restrictions on people entering Maine from out of state, could severely limit the number of tourists who come to Maine in 2020. Credit: Bill Trotter | BDN

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The numbers are in for Memorial Day weekend, traditionally considered the start of Maine’s summer tourist season, and the returns have hoteliers and other businesses in Bar Harbor fearing that 2020 will be a bust.

Local tourist industry officials fear that some won’t be around to reopen in 2021.

Shop owners and restaurateurs in Bar Harbor say they had the slowest summertime holiday weekend they can remember.

“It was a ghost town,” said Michael Boland, who owns Havana restaurant and Choco-Latte cafe, adding that business was down at least 80 percent at his operations from the past two Memorial Day weekends. “I would bet that the majority of businesses that were open on Memorial Day weekend operated at a loss.”

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May is when most hotels open in the summer in Bar Harbor, which draws millions of tourists each summer, most of whom visit adjacent Acadia National Park. But most local hotels and many shops and restaurants — like much of the park — remain closed because of pandemic-related precautions.

David Woodside, president of Acadia Corp., said some of the company’s seven local retail shops still aren’t open. Those that are got a fraction of the business they typically get for the holiday weekend.

“It was far less than what a normal Memorial Day would be, but that was expected,” Woodside said. “It was pretty quiet.”

With an order from Gov. Janet Mills that out-of-state visitors must quarantine in Maine for two weeks before they can rent a room or vacation cottage, lodging business operators say the best they can hope for this year is survival. Even though Mills said hotels and vacation rental owners can begin accepting reservations for June 1 and later, few travelers are booking lodging and many are canceling their previous reservations.

“We’re losing people by the thousands,” Eben Salvatore, who oversees operations at several local hotels owned by Bar Harbor Resorts, said.

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The company already is behind in hiring and training employees because of the pandemic, Salvatore said, and despite Mills’ plan to gradually re-open Maine’s economy, things are going from bad to worse.

“Without a policy change, I don’t see us opening [in Bar Harbor] at all,” he said.

Other coastal businesses also question whether they will make it through 2020.

Ed Gilmore, who co-owns and operates Claddagh Motel & Cottages on Route 1 in Rockport with his wife Siobhan Gilmore, said that the governor’s quarantine order must be lifted for July and August for them to have a chance.

“All we’re getting is cancellations,” Gilmore said. “We’re handcuffed here. For a small place like us, it will put us out of business.”

Siobhan Gilmore, who like her husband was born in Ireland before emigrating to America, said they opened the coastal motel in 1996 and, since then, have raised a family and sent children off to college. She said that maybe 10 to 15 percent of their customers are from Maine — the rest come from out of state.

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“To think I’ve worked my butt off all these years, and now the rug has been pulled from my feet overnight,” she said. “Now it’s a matter of survival.”

Woodside estimates half of his company’s retail customers are from Maine, but that many also are cruise ship passengers from away. State officials have canceled all cruise ship visits in Maine through the end of August, leaving open the possibility that Bar Harbor still could get more than 70 visits scheduled for this fall, but Woodside said he also expects those visits to be canceled.

“We’re trying to maintain some optimism about fall cruise ships, but we’re not really anticipating that” they will come, Woodside said. “We expect sales to be down in the fall as well.”

Boland said he thinks the impact of 2020 will be felt for the next several years in Maine’s tourism industry, but he held out hope that at least part of this season can be salvaged. September and October are busier tourism months in Bar Harbor than May and June, he noted, and there is still time to implement some changes so that tourists can plan trips beyond next month.

But there are a lot of “ifs.”

If the quarantine mandate is lifted in the next month, if testing becomes more readily available and if restaurants are given more flexibility to sell alcohol to go or to use outdoor spaces for seating, things might turn around, he said, adding that safety precautions for customers and employees do not have to be sacrificed for tourism businesses to reopen.

“Generally, if we can safely host and entertain 60 to 75 percent of the normal visitation levels we get in August, September and October, we will hopefully prevent a host of bankruptcies,” Boland said.

Salvatore said Ocean Properties Ltd, the parent company of Bar Harbor Resorts, said his businesses have already shown they can operate safely. It has been renting rooms at hotels in Augusta, Bangor and Bath to essential workers who have been putting in shifts at area hospitals or at Bath Iron Works, and has implemented safety protocols that have helped prevent those guests from being exposed to the disease. He said the company should be allowed to accept tourists from out of state with the same precautions it has adopted for its other guests.

“We’re Vacationland. That’s supposed to mean something,” Salvatore said. “There’s a way we can balance this equation and get through the season together. The business community just needs a chance to show it can be done.”

Watch: Janet Mills announces changes to June 1 reopening phase

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Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....