By Elaine S. Povich
Ken Mason is in the ninth generation of his family to run the Seaside Inn in Kennebunk Beach, Maine. He’s worried he might be the last.
What’s got him concerned are the COVID-19 rules that Maine and many other states have put in place requiring visitors from other states to quarantine for 14 days once they arrive. That won’t work for Mason. His average visitor stays three and a half days; that’s typical for tourist rentals. Mason is now limited to hosting only Maine residents or out-of-staters who agreed to quarantine for the two weeks.
All over the country, states have instituted the two-week quarantine for hotels, inns, golf courses and other amenities to stop people from states with high COVID-19 infection rates from bringing the virus with them, sickening local residents and overwhelming medical facilities.
But the requirements are devastating for people who rely on rental income from out-of-state tourists, especially those in New England or other northern climes with very short summer seasons. Even if visitors stay with a friend or relative, the 14-day quarantine means they can’t shop or go out for curbside pickup dining.
“It’s basically shut us down for the summer,” Mason said in a phone interview from his hotel near Gooch Beach, named for Mason’s wife’s ancestor Jedidiah Gooch, who ran the hotel (founded in 1660) beginning in 1756.
Mason tallied up the number of visitors from Maine last summer: nine. Most of his guests come from Massachusetts and New York — states with high numbers of coronavirus cases. He understands the reasons for the quarantine (he’s thinking about moving into the hotel to protect his own family from the few visitors who might come carrying the disease), but it’s killing his business.
Thirty states, from Maine to Montana, have instituted either a mandatory or recommended 14-day quarantine, including tourist destinations such as Arizona, Florida, Nevada and South Carolina. The rules are subject to change, however, and some states have begun to loosen other restrictions. South Carolina, for example, has allowed some beach access subject to local orders.
Maine recently allowed hotels and inns to start taking reservations again (they had been blocked) for after June 1. But the state’s two-week quarantine remains.
As the Memorial Day weekend closed in, Pennsylvania state officials from Gov. Tom Wolf and State Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine and Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney urged Keystone Staters to stay home and not participate in the annual rite of going to the New Jersey Shore.
The varying state rules can be confusing for travelers, as well as impractical for hotels, said Jan L. Jones, professor of hospitality and tourism at the University of New Haven in Connecticut.
“A lot of these smaller businesses don’t have travelers for more than a few days at a time,” she said in a phone interview. “People don’t go to Maine to sit in a hotel room. There has to be a clearer message for how the whole industry can work together. Can I go to a local restaurant for pickup?”
According to the guidelines: no, at least not in Maine. But the question remains: Can a hotel open a self-contained restaurant? Can guests order takeout — at least back to their room?
Questions like these have thrown the travel industry for a loop, along with everything else associated with COVID-19.
Catherine Prather, president of the National Tour Association, which represents tour operators, said in a phone interview that the “uncertainty in the patchwork nature of what is happening in different states and even cities within states … does add to the difficulties the tour companies are having right now. It’s understandable, but it’s absolutely frustrating.”
Prather said her organization is trying to keep a list of the rules in different states and even different countries, but it’s difficult to keep up with daily changes.
The United Nations World Tourism Organization reported international tourism though the end of March dropped 22.4% compared with the first three months of last year.
Even places where tourists can spread out, such as golf courses and campgrounds, have quarantine restrictions in place. In New Hampshire, Republican Gov. Chris Sununu issued orders allowing golf courses to open, but only for New Hampshire residents.
Sununu said this month he’s mostly worried about golfers from Massachusetts, a coronavirus hot spot. New Hampshire has stayed relatively unscathed.
West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, also a Republican, said visitors to West Virginia would no longer be required to self-quarantine for 14 days, effective May 21.
Golf courses also are limited to in-state residents in Maine, said Tony Cameron, CEO for Maine Tourism. But enforcement is a murky area, he said in a phone interview.
“There are fines if you get caught,” he said. “How it’s going to be policed is up to local law enforcement. From our perspective, there’s a lot of gray areas.”
In New Hampshire, there are no penalties for noncompliance, Sununu admitted.
“It’s really up to the facility to make sure they’re adhering to the rules,” Sununu said at a news conference earlier this month. “We don’t have stay-at-home police that patrol the state.”
It’s a difficult balancing act between “the health of Maine people and the health of Maine’s economy,” said Kate Foye, spokesperson for the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development.
“The last thing anyone wants to do is to overwhelm our health care system, put frontline responders more at risk, or potentially further destabilize our economy for an even longer period of time,” she said in an emailed statement.
Delaware beaches are slowly opening up to residents, but not to visitors from other states unless they stay quarantined for the requisite 14 days.
Year-round residents from nearby states including Maryland, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia who own summer homes at the Delaware beaches are welcome to use their houses, but are still subject to the 14-day quarantine, said Jonathan Starkey, a spokesperson for Democratic Delaware Gov. John Carney, in an email.
The Colorado Tourism Office has come up with a unique way of keeping up enthusiasm — the power of pretend. The “Waiting to CO” campaign, using the state’s two-letter abbreviation as a verb, features a kid in a helmet riding a plastic kayak down the front steps of his home and a climber in full gear scaling his fireplace stonework.
But dreaming doesn’t pay the bills or keep 205 summer employees working, according to David Woods, owner of Burnette’s Campground, a 180-site facility at York Beach, Maine, dating from 1969. He said 70% of his business comes from Massachusetts, and most of the rest from other points in the Northeast.
“We’re allowing people to come up as long as they are willing to quarantine for 14 days and making them sign a contract that if they leave, they will not be let back in,” Woods said in a phone interview.
“People are really pissed off at us, because they think it’s our doing,” Woods said. He has offered to refund money to trailer owners who pull out of their reservations by June 1. Those who opt to come after that date and self-quarantine will get a discount for losing the month of May, which can be applied to next year’s rent, he said.
His customers are loyal, he said, and might go for it. “I’m in my 60s. There are people who were there before my wife and I got married out of high school.”