Allison Pooler cleans the windows of a Bayside cottage rental in the midcoast town of Northport after guests left in this July 2017 file photo. Weekly rental owners say that, despite concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic, and worries about how it might affect Maine's 2020 tourism season, they are getting a lot of business this summer. Credit: Ashley L. Conti / BDN

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Things were looking bleak in April and May when people who work in Maine’s tourism industry were wondering how the 2020 summer might be affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, and by restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of the disease.

In particular, a ban on renting lodging to anyone from outside of Maine who had not already quarantined in the state for two weeks seemed especially daunting. Since only people who already had access to a home in Maine — essentially, those with no need to rent a hotel room or vacation cabin — would be able to comply with the quarantine mandate, the state’s lodging industry seemed destined for failure, many business owners said.

Since then, Gov. Janet Mills has eased some of the restrictions for out-of-state visitors, and has waived the quarantine mandate for visitors from certain states. As a result, the summer has turned out to be much busier for weekly rental owners than they thought it would be three months ago.

“I think that’s an understatement,” said Paige Teel, general manager of On The Water in Maine Vacation Rentals and president of the trade group Northeast Vacation Rental Professionals. “We are insanely busy.”

Renting a vacation home seems well suited to a summer when many are looking for a socially distanced vacation. But a strong market for vacation rentals hasn’t necessarily spilled over to the hotel industry.

Inquiries have quadrupled since early July, said Kate Chaplin of The Knowles Company, which manages weekly rentals for more than 430 properties on and near MDI. That increase came around the time Mills relaxed restrictions for residents of a handful of Northeastern states. The agency’s clients are people who want to get away from big cities and surrounding suburbs and have more room where they can get outside and relax without worrying about being in crowded places, she said.

“We’ve had bookings through the roof,” Chaplin said. “They’ve been saying, ‘We want to go to a place where we feel safe.’ They want to go where it’s not crowded.”

Data from Airbnb, the vacation rental service, also show that Maine has been getting vacationers from nearby states this year, despite the pandemic.

Airbnb hosts statewide earned more than $800,000 from guests living within 300 miles of their rentals during the month of June, a company spokesperson said. In particular, hosts in northern Maine saw a 102 percent increase in such guests in June over the same month in 2019, and those in western Maine saw a 49 percent increase.

This increase in Maine reflects a trend in rural areas across the country, the company said. Nationwide, rural Airbnb hosts earned more $200 million in June, an increase of more than 25 percent over June 2019.

Maine hotels and restaurants, however, are still seeing major declines this summer.

Eben Salvatore, operations manager for Bar Harbor Resorts, said that the company’s June revenues were down 85 percent from 2019, and down 60 percent in July. July’s drop is more significant, he said, because it tends to be a much busier month for the company than June. Visitors from Massachusetts, who are not exempt from Mills’ quarantine or testing mandate, comprise 30 to 40 percent of the company’s customer base each July, he said.

Bar Harbor Resorts’ restaurants, many of which have ample outdoor seating, have fared better than its hotels, he said. Its higher-end properties have fared better than its mid-level hotels.

“We’re busier on the weekends, quieter during the week,” Salvatore said, adding that he is optimistic that hotels statewide will do better in August.

Meanwhile, vacation rental bookings have been “busier than ever” for On the Water, a group of 120 weekly rental owners with properties spread along the coast from Harrington in Washington County to Cape Elizabeth, said Teel, the group’s general manager.

But clients are not vacationing as normal, she said. Most are avoiding village settings and steering clear of activities such as shopping and eating at restaurants, and museums and cultural events aren’t an option this summer. When clients do leave their rental properties, it tends to be for outdoor activities such as hiking or kayaking, she said.

“There is lots of available parking in tourist towns, which never happens this time of year,” Teel said. “There are millions of [visitors] in Maine who are not moving about.”

A ranger at Acadia National Park asks to see a visitor’s pass while directing traffic Sunday at the park’s entrance station on Park Loop Road, where vehicles were backed up for roughly a mile waiting to get through. Credit: Bill Trotter / BDN

The evidence of vacationers seeking the outdoors can be found at Acadia National Park, where, after a slow June, MDI residents have reported encountering recent congestion in the park, especially on weekends. At one point on Sunday, motorists were backed up for nearly a mile at the park’s drive-through entrance station on Park Loop Road and had to wait for 30 or more minutes before they could continue on toward popular spots including Sand Beach and Thunder Hole.

In June, visitation to the park was down 60 percent from the same month last year, from 420,000 to 180,000 visits, said Christie Anastasia, a park spokesperson. While the park doesn’t yet have July visitation estimates, it’s not expecting a similar decline.

“We’ve had multiple road closures [due to heavy traffic], multiple search and rescues, and overall patterns indicating increases in visitation,” Anasatia said.

Another indicator that suggests weekly renters are seeking a different kind of vacation is the demand for broadband internet access.

Both Teel and Chaplin said customers are asking about internet access more frequently than in previous years, suggesting that some are working while in Maine and even plan to stay beyond the start of the school year, when many students expect to restart classes online.

“It’s a priority,” Chaplin said. “It’s a necessity because of telecommuting.”

Food delivery services also have been at a premium, Teel and Chaplin said, with many renters asking where they can place online grocery orders or get takeout.

“Uber and DoorDash aren’t around” in much of Maine, Teel said.

While she is glad to be busy, Chaplin said the unusual volume of both bookings and cancellations has resulted in consistent 10- to 12-hour work days for her and her colleagues. While there has been a heavy influx of recent vacationers from New York, Massachusetts and other Northeastern states, people from more distant states who face stiffer requirements for coming to Maine — including Florida, Texas and California — have been steadily canceling their vacation plans.

She expects demand will continue to be high through the summer and possibly into the fall, as many renters continue to avoid more crowded cities.

“I think it will be a strong year, but it is a year I never, ever want to repeat,” Chaplin said. “I thought I was going to lose my shirt this summer. I was really worried about it.”

Correction: An earlier version of this report misstated by how much bookings have grown for one weekly rental agency.

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....