A man walks past a 'for rent' sign posted in the window of an empty storefront in downtown Bar Harbor on Thursday, Sept. 10, 2020. Credit: Bill Trotter / BDN

Bar Harbor tourism business owners say they have been getting more customers the past two months despite the global COVID-19 pandemic, but their revenues still are way behind what they were in early September a year ago.

And now, with Labor Day behind them during the most unusual tourist season they can recall, they hope tourists keep coming for the next couple of months to help them make up for a dismal spring, when travel restrictions and a host of unknowns about the severity of the pandemic nearly brought global travel to a standstill.

“The early summer was a struggle for us, as was spring,” said Jon Tierney, who owns and operates Alpenglow Adventure Sports retail stores in Bar Harbor and Orono, as well as Acadia Mountain Guides. “It’s been unpredictable.”

Tierney said he expects his business revenues will be off around 40 percent for the year compared to last year, mostly because his operations were at a near standstill until mid-July. In June, he said, he had nine climbing customers compared to more than 500 in June 2019.

“It would be nice to get more back to normal, if anyone knows what that is anymore,” Tierney said.

A woman and girl walk across Main Street toward a free face mask and hand sanitizer dispensing station in downtown Bar Harbor on Thursday, Sept. 10, 2020. Credit: Bill Trotter / BDN

While official figures for the tourist season still aren’t available, and some indicators have shown a mixed bag for the tourism industry, anecdotally there’s wide agreement that far fewer tourists have come to Bar Harbor and to Maine in general this year.

Acadia National Park, the major draw for the Bar Harbor area and for much of the state’s multi-billion dollar tourism industry, reported its visitor numbers for 2020 through the end of July had fallen by more than 40 percent compared to 2019, but visitation had doubled from June to July (numbers for August aren’t yet available). Agents for weekly rental properties statewide have said they have been busier than ever this summer, despite getting high numbers of cancellations.

In Bar Harbor, the number of hotel guests has been down significantly, though some local restaurant owners have reported being busy since early July, when Gov. Janet Mills relaxed restrictions on visitors from Connecticut, New Jersey and New York. Some Bar Harbor restaurant owners say they have had some of their busiest days ever this summer.

Yet there have been more empty storefronts in downtown Bar Harbor this year than is typical during tourist season, both for retail shops and for restaurants. Some business owners say they have been getting fewer customers in part because nearby empty storefronts, or other nearby businesses that have curtailed their hours or offerings out of necessity, have meant fewer people walking past their front doors.

David Woodside, president of Acadia Corp., said Friday that business at the company’s local retail shops experienced “a major rebound” in August after seeing very little traffic in early summer. But he said that the company’s stores will feel the absence of cruise ships this fall, as traffic from the ships usually accounts for a significant portion of their business after Labor Day.

“In their absence, we are expecting sales to be off by 50 to 60 percent compared to 2019,” Woodside said.

At Bar Harbor Bicycle Shop, however, business has been brisk. Joe Minutolo, who since 1978 has owned and operated the shop with his brother Al, said the pandemic has spurred a strong interest in cycling — which allows people to get outside while maintaining social distancing. This has buoyed the shop’s sales and, when visitors from out of state were allowed to come to Maine and Bar Harbor, the shop’s rental business also picked up.

The challenges his business has faced have had to do with staffing and supplies, he said. Because global shipping ground to a halt this past spring, there is a shortage of bicycle equipment on the market. Minutolo said he’s had some customers drive to Bar Harbor all the way from New York just to buy a bicycle because they could not find any they wanted in their home state.

As for the availability of employees, workers from out of state have been scarce because of travel restrictions, and at some businesses employees chose not to return to work because of concerns about the risk of exposure to COVID-19.

“We are not sure if we should hire at this time due to [the possibility of] bringing someone in that could be infected, and who knows, the bottom could fall out of the market in the next few weeks,” Minutolo said. “So I think it’s time to hunker down and try to get through the next month with what and who we have.”

Greg Dugal of HospitalityMaine, a statewide trade group that represents hotels and restaurants, said Friday that the group’s members generally saw an uptick in business in August, but nowhere near enough to offset the lack of business they had this past spring.

A musician performs for bar customers outside at the Ivy Manor Inn in downtown Bar Harbor on Thursday, Sept. 10, 2020. Credit: Bill Trotter / BDN Credit: Bill Trotter / BDN

Taxable sales for lodging businesses in the Portland area, for example, were down more than 90 percent in April and May, and by nearly that much in June, Dugal said. For Portland-area restaurants, taxable sales were down by 74 percent, 67 percent and 57 percent for those same three months respectively.

“August was a much better month,” Dugal said. “The summer was much better than people thought it would be [this past spring], but it wasn’t good.”

A steep decline in visitors from Massachusetts, who usually come to Maine in large numbers but this year face travel restrictions, has hurt business, he said. In addition, more people seem to be coming to Maine with less advance planning — a trend that precedes the pandemic’s arrival in Maine — which, in turn, has meant more trips on short notice and shorter stays. Dugal noted that state COVID-19 regulations require that hotel guests make advance reservations and do not permit lodging businesses to accept walk-in business.

But Maine’s relatively dry and warm weather this summer was helpful. It encouraged people to come to Maine to enjoy the outdoors, and allowed many restaurants to shift to offering outdoor dining, Dugal said.

How many visitors come to Maine in the next several weeks, when many tourists come to see the state’s fall foliage, likely will depend on how long comfortable temperatures hold out and the autumn rains stay away, he said.

“Weather played a huge role,” Dugal said. “If you have to have a drought, this was the year to have it.”

Correction: An earlier version of this report incorrectly stated that more visitors are coming to Maine without booking reservations in advance.

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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....