This week Gov. Janet Mills announced that visitors from New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut could visit Maine without quarantining and without presenting a negative COVID-19 test. They join New Hampshire and Vermont, which Mills exempted from the quarantine requirement last month. This is troubling on multiple fronts.
While COVID-19 positive test rates appear to have decreased in those states, test rates are only part of the picture. Last week the Centers for Disease Control estimated that 10 times as many people have been infected as we had previously believed. That is because there are countless people infected with COVID-19 who have not been tested because they are asymptomatic.
Even visitors from the tristate area who did not contract COVID in their home states are at risk of contracting it on their way to Maine as they stop at rest stops in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, two states that still have elevated infection rates. Allowing millions of visitors to our state in the midst of a global pandemic introduces countless variables and increases the likelihood that Maine will reach infection levels that could cost lives and permanently shutter our businesses.
As owner-operators of small businesses that depend on tourism, we understand how important visitors are to our economy. However, we also know that we are only as strong as the workers and communities we depend on. We are three small town small business owners who have operated on Main Street for decades. In 1993 Borealis Breads started off in the basement of a restaurant and now operates locations in Wells and Waldoboro, sourcing about 60,000 pounds of Maine-grown grain every year. Both second-generation businesses, Halcyon Yarn moved to Bath in 1981 and S. Fernald’s Country Store opened in Damariscotta in 1990.
Over the years, many of our employees, customers, and community members have become like family. We have seen them grow up, know their parents and siblings and children. It is not fair to ask them to put their lives and their families’ lives at risk for short-term gains.
Opening early creates a race to the bottom where businesses that operate irresponsibly profit and those that care about their workers and their communities lose out. It should not be on each individual business owner to have to enforce the quarantine, but rather on the state to defend our collective public health. A laissez-faire approach to public health has created a Maine where cashiers and servers are forced to become “health crisis bouncers,” but without the public health training and resources of nurses — or even that of real bouncers! We should not move even further in that dangerous direction. While requiring masks is a positive step, we sincerely hope that there will be more enforcement of that requirement than there has been of social distancing guidelines in places like Portland, where on weekends Wharf Street resembles a Mardi Gras parade.
While we may not have the capacity to screen everyone coming into Maine, we can at least be sure that every out-of-state visitor who stops at a tollbooth receives a flyer listing the requirement and the penalties for not following the quarantine. We can also ramp up public services announcements with messages like “Stay Home for ME” in neighboring states.
Visitors to Maine, don’t get us wrong. We love you — you are a boon to our businesses and our towns. But we would rather you wait to visit once we are out of the thick of a global pandemic that threatens all our lives. We recently surpassed 100 deaths from COVID. As the state with the oldest population in the nation, we are especially vulnerable to a pandemic that is particularly fatal for the elderly.
As small business owner Ilma Lopez, the co-owner of Chaval and Piccolo restaurants in Portland told the Press Herald, “I am in debt like everyone else, but I don’t think it is fair to put everyone at risk for reopening sooner. The money in my pocket won’t make me feel as good if it means people are getting sick.”
We have made serious sacrifices in the last few months and we know that our businesses are not the only ones. We know that ramping up for tourist season requires a serious investment. Making that investment and having to close again could be fatal. If we lift the quarantine too soon, all of that sacrifice will be for naught. That rush won’t just cost lives, it will cost many Main Street small businesses like ours.
Jim Amaral is the owner of Borealis Breads in Waldoboro and Wells. Gretchen Jaeger is the owner of Halcyon Yarns in Bath. Sumner Richards IV is the owner of S. Fernald’s Country Store in Damariscotta.