OLD ORCHARD BEACH, Maine (AP) — Much of New England is slowly emerging from a six-week lockdown, with greenhouses, golf courses and barber shops rolling out the welcome mat for customers eager to return to some sense of normalcy.
But the partial reopening in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and soon Rhode Island comes amid concerns about adequate testing and contact tracing, as well as hundreds of new cases each day. Many business owners also worry whether the reopening, especially in places like Maine, will come too late to salvage the summer tourism season.
“Everyone has been cooped up, frustrated with wearing masks,” said Dave Gravino, owner of Iggy’s Doughboys and Chowder House, who hopes to open soon to outdoor diners in Rhode Island. “I feel we’re turning a corner. But I think it’s going to be a slow process.”
Nature has found the irony in the reopenings and preparations for fairer weather, with a rare May snowfall and record cold forecast Friday and Saturday for much of the region.
Maine is allowing the use of golf courses and most state parks, visits to dentists, barbers and hairdressers, and stay-in-vehicle religious services. New Hampshire is allowing the restricted reopening of restaurants, hair salons and other businesses throughout the month.
Vermont is continuing to gradually emerge from its virus-induced shutdown with more commercial activity and outdoor recreation opportunities for groups of 10 or less, including golf courses and tennis courts, but as of now, the state, which needs tourism to thrive, isn’t ready to welcome people from outside.
Rhode Island plans to take its first step with a soft reopening on Saturday. A day after the state's stay-at-home order expires, Gov. Gina Raimondo envisions a plan in which more stores will be allowed to reopen but restaurants, bars and salons will remain closed. The talk of reopening shops — and in a few weeks, perhaps outdoor dining — delighted businesses who have been relying on curbside pick-up, home delivery and online sales.
“Nothing compares to having your doors open and customers browsing,” said Jennifer Massotti, general manager at Barrington Books, a bookstore with two locations in Rhode Island. “We’re anxious to see people out and about, but the safety of our customers and employees is paramount.”
Many businesses are cheering the news. But a Harvard University epidemiologist sounded a pessimistic tone this week, pointing to a lack of disease surveillance and protections for the most vulnerable.
“I can’t point to any place in the U.S. that I would feel good about saying I think now is the time for that place to open up,” said Dr. Michael Mina, professor of immunology and infectious diseases, pointing to fears of a second, more destructive wave of illnesses.
It’s smart for states to go slow because the rate of testing for COVID-19 is slow, antibody testing is something of a “wild West,” and contact tracing needs to be bolstered, said Dr. Elliott Fisher, an epidemiologist who does public health research at Dartmouth College.
Federal guidelines call for testing 2% of the population per month. Rhode Island, the nation's smallest state, has tested about 7% of the state’s 1 million people so far. New Hampshire has exceeded testing of at least 2% of its population a month while Maine and Vermont are ramping up testing.
The other concern is a resurgence in cases as the summer tourism season arrives and scores of residents from corona hotspots like Massachusetts and New York City head northward to vacation homes and rented cabins.
During the Spanish Flu of 1918, the dangerous virus took several months longer to reach rural areas in Maine. But when it did, it struck with a vengeance, said Dr. Dora Anne Mills, an executive at MaineHealth and the state’s former top health officer.
Maine’s northernmost and easternmost counties ended up with the highest death rates in the state, she said.
New Hampshire Republican Gov. Chris Sununu acknowledged that residents from urban areas may be tempted to escape northward. “I don’t know what we can do about that. We can’t shut down the borders here, we just have to be smart about what we do," he said.
That sentiment is echoed by Democratic Gov. Janet Mills in Maine.
“The tourist industry, all of us, love to have people come here and enjoy our beaches, lakes and mountains, and spend money here. But this year, right now, they might be coming and bringing the virus, and it might result in the most god-awful consequences,” she said.
It's a tricky balancing act when tourism-dependent economies rely on millions of visitors from other states, some hard-hit by the coronavirus. Maine normally sees about 36 million visitors a year.
“It’s not like we can offer Zoom vacations. People actually have to come to the state,” said Jesse Henry, marketing director for Migis Hotel Group, which counts on out-of-state tourists for 90% of summer business at seven hotels and inns across Maine.
Henry remains hopeful that people will want to escape to Maine. But the summer is already a bust for businesses like Funtown Splashtown USA, an amusement park whose water slide and roller coasters will be closed this summer for the first time since 1967.
“I’ve never had a free summer. This is what I’ve done, basically, for my adult life. I would much rather be greeting guests,” said marketing director Ed Hodgdon, who has been working at the amusement park near Old Orchard Beach since he was 16.
Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers David Klepper in Providence, Rhode Island; Holly Ramer in Concord, New Hampshire; and Wilson Ring in Stowe, Vermont.