AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine is signaling a pullback on remaining economic restrictions amid a sharp decline in coronavirus cases and an accelerating vaccine effort, but it lags neighboring states in doing so ahead of spring and summer.
A year into the pandemic, states have begun to prepare for a warm-weather season likely to be marked by pent-up travel demand. Vermont — which has had strict travel rules — last week lifted a quarantine order for fully vaccinated people coming to and from the state. Massachusetts allowed the Boston Red Sox to host 4,500 fans beginning opening day.
Maine still has a 10-day quarantine order in effect except for those from New Hampshire and Vermont and those who have recently tested negative for the virus. There is no exception for vaccinated people. The state has been in Phase 4 of reopening since October with few changes since November, when Gov. Janet Mills delayed bar reopenings and reduced indoor gathering limits.
That was at the start of a surge of cases, hospitalizations and deaths that continued into mid-January and has declined relatively steadily since then, in line with national trends. Coupled with a national inoculation effort to soon be buoyed by a one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine, the hospitality industry sees a chance to salvage a somewhat normal 2021 tourism season.
The state is reviewing reopening protocols with “the dual aim of protecting public health while promoting economic activity,” Kate Foye, a spokesperson for the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development, said Friday. Any changes “would be announced in the coming weeks.”
There is wide recognition that mask mandates and pandemic changes such as plexiglass barriers and distancing rules may be in effect indefinitely. The tourism and retail industries are now targeting the quarantine requirement for vaccinated people and capacity limits of 50 people per room for indoor seated activities and five people per 1,000 square feet in retail settings.
“Our job is to drive them crazy and we’ve done so,” Greg Dugal, a lobbyist for HospitalityMaine, an advocacy group for bars and restaurants, said of state officials. “I can officially say we’ve achieved that goal.”
Maine’s tourism-driven economy proved susceptible to the pandemic, which initially forced the closure of restaurants and lodging and has shut down the border with Canada. While state tax revenues have outpaced initial doomsday projections and gained from 2019 to 2020, restaurants and lodging each saw roughly a 25 percent decline.
All of that business is not likely to return in 2021. At the Harraseeket Inn, a 94-room hotel in Freeport, it is too late to save a normally busy wedding season and business clients are not likely to return to the types of in-person conferences they held before the pandemic, said owner Chip Gray. In a normal year, that business alone would account for $5 million or more in revenue.
He said the inn lost $4 million in 30 days when Maine clamped down on travel last March and was bailed out by the federal Paycheck Protection Program. Business in the summer after hotels reopened was at 7 percent of normal levels and it is at 20 percent this February.
The vaccination effort may be the most important factor in travel decisions. A national survey by Strategic Vision in January that found generally bullish travelers also found vaccines are the No. 1 item to restore consumer confidence in travel, followed by rapid testing, safe treatments and removal of quarantine rules that differ widely by state, and declining case rates at destinations.
Gray and others in Maine are pinning their hopes this year on individual travel. He expected it to pick up “quickly” if the quarantine requirement is lifted and the vaccine effort progresses with no hiccups such as the rise of more contagious COVID-19 variants about which state officials have signaled worry.
“It’ll be like a stampede,” Gray said.
Mills, a Democrat, declined to say Friday how the new vaccination plan might affect economic restrictions, including quarantine and testing requirements and capacity limits for restaurants and other establishments. The governor said her administration was “looking at all those issues,” but there were no imminent policy changes.
The administration has been deliberate in its recent approach to pandemic changes. The state was poised to expand vaccines to Mainers 65 and older and some frontline workers until making the switch to an age-based system and has been coy about economic plans lately.
Curtis Picard, the executive director of the Retail Association of Maine, said he has been given no timeframe for any changes, but expects the state to adopt a strategy similar to the vaccine system that would set forth a vision of what the next few months could look like. One of his group’s priorities is to equalize capacity limits between restaurants and stores.
“We just want to know what these next few months are going to look like, as best as possible,” he said. “We know there’s still a degree of uncertainty there and the state needs to be flexible in keeping people safe, but just having more transparency and clarity is always a good thing.”
BDN writer Jessica Piper contributed to this report.