For Deni Farr, who lives in a small town in South Carolina, it’s been an emotional roller coaster to plan an Acadia National Park visit during a Maine quarantine order, with ups and downs that often left her drained and unsettled.
Maine is requiring out of state tourists to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival, and that is unrealistic for most short-term visitors like Farr. The quarantine is discouraging many and creating uncertainty and new doubts about vacations at Acadia National Park, which opened the Park Loop Road to traffic on June 1.
Last August, Farr and two friends reserved a cottage at Hutchins Cottages at Acadia in Southwest Harbor for a trip in June, but they just canceled those plans on advice of the owner. They now are booked for July when there is a chance the Maine quarantine order will be lifted or eased to allow outdoor activities like Acadia National Park hiking.
It was upsetting to kill their initial plans, Farr said. All three women basically just want to hike and June would be be perfect for hiking in the only national park in the Northeast, she said.
“It’s been stressful,” said Farr, of Bluffton, South Carolina. “Are we going? Are we not going?”
The women switched car rental and plane tickets a couple of times and wrestled with packing toilet paper, food and spices to cope with the limits of the quarantine. They asked for a rental car with Maine license plates because of reports that some people in Maine are harassing outsiders.
Because people traveling into the state must comply with the Maine quarantine in an executive order by Gov. Janet Mills, Farr and thousands of others are changing or altering their plans for a vacation. The quarantine order, part of the effort to fight the spread of coronavirus, only allows people to leave isolation basically for medical reasons.
Maine governor to present final plan for tourism this week
While Heather Johnson, commissioner of the Maine Department of Economic Community Development, has conceded that enforcement of the quarantine is effectively based on an honors system, violations are a misdemeanor punishable by up to 6 months in jail and $1,000 fine. Lodging operators said it puts them in a dicey position and visitors might be tempted to fib.
The governor and key members of her administration have for weeks been working with tourism and hospitality leaders on alternatives to the quarantine. A final plan to boost tourism is expected this week, according to a statement by Mills on Friday.
“The best thing we can do for Maine businesses is create a system that will instill a sense of safety and consumer confidence for the public, for staff, and for travelers to want to come here,” wrote Mills.
Maine has some of the lowest virus rates in the nation, but Mills attributed that to the actions taken by the state.
Mills did not provide details in the letter, but NewsCenter Maine, the NBC-TV affiliate for Portland-Auburn/Bangor, reported last week that Mills’s plan would allow tourists to bypass the quarantine if they can verify they had recently tested negative for coronavirus. Lodging operators would need to contact all people with reservations to inform them of the testing requirement, the report said.
A new plan won’t come soon enough for Maine’s hard-hit tourism industry. While the quarantine requirement is tough on tourists, it’s cut visitation to Acadia and been financially traumatic for lodging operators, retail stores and restaurants in Maine.
Cottage owner in Southwest Harbor seeing no business in June
Kristin Hutchins, owner of the Hutchins Cottages at Acadia in Southwest Harbor, told Farr and her friends to cancel their plans to stay at the cottages in June and switch their reservations to July when the quarantine would be less strict.
Hutchins, whose family has owned the cottages for 51 years, said that usually half the six cottages are rented in June, but she basically has had “zero business” during the month. Lodging operators, except for those providing for state-approved guests, were closed through May during the pandemic and now are allowed to book guests from out of state if they agree to quarantine.
The Maine quarantine order currently bars guests from visiting public places such as restaurants, stores or supermarkets. Acadia National Park has aligned itself with state rules during the pandemic and is requiring visitors to the park to first quarantine upon arrival in Maine, too high a bar for most tourists.
Based on guidance from the Maine Tourism Association, Hutchins, also a member of the Board of Selectmen in Southwest Harbor, said the quarantine is scheduled to be modified starting July 1 to allow outdoor activities such as hiking in Acadia National Park during the pandemic.
Visitor bitten by the ‘Acadia love bug’ can’t wait to see park again
Hutchins said most of her guests are attracted by Acadia National Park.
“Hutchins Cottages would probably not exist if it were not for Acadia,” she said. “Ninety-nine percent of my guests are from outside the state and Acadia is a terrific draw.”
People with summer homes and second homes in the area figured it was safer on Mount Desert Island and arrived earlier this year with their families and complied with the quarantine in their homes, Hutchins said. But short term renters like Farr are scarce.
“The streets and parking are remarkably empty,” Hutchins wrote in a followup email. “And it is weird having my property so quiet with no one on it.”
Farr said Acadia National Park is special to her and she loves all the peaks. She and her husband, Kevin Farr, were smitten when they first visited the park in 1992.
“I call it the Acadia love bug,” she said. “It bit both our souls. It became part of us.”
They hiked just about everywhere, including Gorham Mountain and Cadillac, Great Head and Jordan Pond. Together for 32 years before his death in 2015, the Farrs visited the park twice a year from 1992 to 1999 including for two weeks every September during their anniversary and in 2003, when they drove up from Florida.
They camped at Blackwoods Campground in the park and held a race between fresh lobsters, where the loser was the first in the pot.
After her husband died, Farr visited by herself during the park’s centennial year in 2016.
Maine quarantine order creates new burdens for business owners
In July, under the current quarantine requirement, a lodging establishment still will have to arrange for take-out, delivery, or grocery services for the visitors, according to the Maine Tourism Association.
During July, Hutchins said, she is planning to shop for food at the supermarket for guests, pick up lobster at the local market, handle any orders for takeout from restaurants and do other errands.
“It will be a lot of work, but if it is the difference between having something and nothing…suck it up and do it,” she said.
Hutchins is facing other demands during the pandemic.
She also drives for the private, nonprofit Tremont Ambulance Service, which goes mostly to Mount Desert Island Hospital in Bar Harbor. She said she is moved and grateful for the EMTs who staff the service and put themselves in harm’s way every day.
During the pandemic, the ambulance service requires much more personal protection equipment, sanitation and maintenance, she said.
Secret ballots for Maine town meetings and other impacts on local residents
Hutchins said the town of Southwest Harbor is also considering how to hold a town meeting, which ordinarily would have convened the first Monday in May. Under a June 3 executive order by the governor, a 50-person cap is kept for public gatherings, but municipal officials have the authority to hold secret ballot elections instead of a public town meeting, according to the Maine Municipal Association.
Hutchins said it saddens her that one of the oldest traditions in New England – the annual open town meeting – could turn into a secret ballot.
Acadia opened the spectacular Park Loop Road, including the summit to Cadillac Mountain, to traffic on June 1, but it’s been a slow June so far compared to some past years, with the park still largely limited to Maine residents.
Outside near the closed Hulls Cove Visitor Center, rangers wear masks and stand behind shielded tables to provide information.
Locals have mixed feelings about the park’s opening.
Former park ranger Maureen Fournier said she drove to the top of Cadillac with hardly another car on the road, hiked without fighting crowds and walked and cycled the Park Loop Road before it opened to traffic. Fournier and her husband, Gerry, who have lived 10 years year-round on Mount Desert Island after being seasonal residents for five years, said she has experienced the park and observed Acadia in ways she never could before.
“But we miss our visitors. We miss sharing the beauty of Acadia National Park. The season just doesn’t feel the same,” she said.