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State officials are hoping to replace the 14-day quarantine requirement for out-of-state visitors with a “layered” approach that will allow tourists to safely enter the state, Maine Department of Economic and Community Development Heather Johnson said Tuesday.
“There is no one answer that will keep everybody healthy when you go from 1.3 million people to 10 million people in a summer in Maine,” Johnson said in an interview with the Bangor Daily News. “We have been looking at solutions that we can layer together because there isn’t one solution.”
An April 3 executive order by Democratic Gov. Janet Mills required all nonessential out-of-state visitors, including Maine residents returning to the state, to self-quarantine for two weeks upon arrival. Many states have similar orders in place, but Maine’s reliance on tourism and its relatively short summer season have led some in the hospitality industry to fear that the season, and their livelihoods, could be lost if the quarantine remains in place into the summer.
“A lot of states are keeping their quarantine in effect. I don’t anticipate that’s where we’ll be,” Johnson said.
Lifting the quarantine order will likely require a blend of testing, symptom checks, public education and adherence to industry-specific COVID-19 prevention guidelines and protocols, Johnson said.
“When you layer all of those together, you create a mesh that is intended to capture and really mitigate that risk,” Johnson said.
The state’s attempt to replace the quarantine is “still a work in progress,” Johnson said, but the Mills administration is trying to finalize a plan “as quickly as possible.” That work includes a “fairly broad collaboration” with industry representatives and communities to gather feedback on elements of the plan to replace the quarantine order, Johnson said.
It also includes evaluating what other states are doing. For example, some states are imposing capacity restrictions on hotels and other lodgings. But that wouldn’t work for Maine, Johnson said, because many lodgings need full capacity during the peak summer months to survive the rest of the year.
Public education will be part of an expected reopening plan, Johnson said on Tuesday. The same day, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services announced a new public education campaign called “Keep it Maine” on Tuesday. The campaign promotes physical distancing, the use of cloth face coverings, and hand hygiene in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Although not specifically targeting out-of-state visitors, the campaign is being rolled out as the summer tourist season begins. The campaign will kick off with social media and digital advertising this week, with television ads to follow in mid-June.
Tourism industry opponents of the quarantine have unsuccessfully tried to overturn the 14-day quarantine order in federal court, although on Monday they said they would appeal the decision. Other tourist industry business owners asked Mills to keep the quarantine in place to protect the health and safety of their workers.
“For many of us, it’s the only reason we’re comfortable reopening,” the business owners said in a letter to Mills in mid-May.
The administration’s priority is public health, Johnson said, but that is followed closely by economic health.
“I don’t think anyone takes the ramifications that those decisions have on businesses lightly,” Johnson said. “It’s a really difficult decision when you get to that point and know that there are businesses that are going to be affected, and that’s their livelihood and what they’re counting on.”
While states throughout the country have implemented 14-day quarantine orders since the beginning of the pandemic, Maine is unique: Its population swells many times over during the summer, and it can be accessed by car from major population centers in the Northeast. The Maine tourism industry generates more than $6 billion a year for the state and supports 110,000 jobs, according to the Maine Office of Tourism.
Alaska, another state dependent on tourism, recently found ways to narrow its 14-day quarantine. Alaska announced Friday it will allow out-of-state visitors to enter the state if they can provide documentation showing they tested negative for COVID-19 within 72 hours of arrival. But that change is made possible in part by the fact that nearly all tourists traveling to Alaska enter through an airport, where documentation can easily be checked by local authorities.
In siding with opponents of the quarantine in their lawsuit, the U.S. Justice Department has suggested that Maine could remove a blanket quarantine for all out-of-state travelers and replace it with a requirement that targets visitors from virus “hot spots.”
Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said those types of more tailored quarantines are “on the table” for the state, but they are problematic because “what constitutes a hot spot can change week by week.”
“Three weeks ago, there were very few cases in South Dakota, and now it is a major hotspot,” Shah said. “From a tourism or planning perspective, we can’t change it every other Thursday.”
In conversations with economists around the country, Johnson said the message she heard repeatedly was to “go steady and careful” and to avoid having to close and reopen the state again.
“That has the most long-term detrimental effects on your economy,” Johnson said.
It “doesn’t mean we never will have to do that,” she said. “If it’s needed, we will do what’s necessary.”
Watch: The risks associated with reopening rural parts of the state