Coronavirus

Shutdown Stories: Live Well Farm

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Patty and Scott Ruppert own Live Well Farm, a destination wedding venue in Harpswell that they operate seasonally from the beginning of June through the end of October. This year, the Ruppert’s were preparing for their eighth season of operating Live Well Farm, however the presence of the coronavirus in Maine and the public response to it appears to have put much of their plans on hold, and their seasonal business in jeopardy.

Each year, the Ruppert’s rent out the property – a five acre farm with a beautifully-renovated farm house and barn – to about 16 couples and their families looking to tie the knot. Guests rent the property from Thursday to Sunday during the summer months. The farm house can comfortably sleep 11 guests while the property is equipped to host up to 200 attendees. The average wedding they host has about 120 attendees.

The Ruppert’s purchased the property about a decade ago and immediately renovated the barn and farm house, and since 2013 they have been renting it out in the summer to families for weddings or to businesses for retreats.

This year, the spread of the coronavirus in Maine and Governor Janet Mills’ heavy-handed response has led to numerous cancellations that affect event bookings for the 2020 and 2021 seasons. The governor has prohibited gatherings of 10 or more people and is requiring the use of face masks in settings where it’s difficult to maintain social distancing guidelines, which means the Ruppert’s are not expecting to host a full slate of weddings at Live Well Farm anytime soon.

“About 90 percent of our couples are not from Maine, and they’re hearing what Governor Mills is saying about the virus and they’re cancelling,” Patty Ruppert said. “When they cancel, they look to reschedule for the 2021 season, which means I’m losing not only my bookings for this year, but I won’t have many new bookings for next year.”

The timing of the arrival of the virus in Maine had the Rupperts expecting to fully retain their bookings for later this year, but the state’s mandates make this increasingly difficult to accomplish for Live Well Farm and its guests given the nature of the business.

“I made the silly assumption that maybe we could keep our bookings, but couples are scared to death. I’m hearing from brides who are booked for a wedding in September that don’t feel comfortable coming to Maine this year because they’re hearing what Governor Mills is putting out and they don’t think she’s going to budge from the 14-day quarantine requirement, and I’m not sure she’s going to either,” Patty Ruppert said.

Despite significant pushback from Maine’s hospitality and tourism sector, Governor Mills has maintained a policy that people returning or traveling to Maine from other states must quarantine for 14 days upon their arrival. This policy is what is driving cancellations for the 2020 season at Live Well Farm and similar businesses in Maine’s tourism industry.

Not only is the shutdown affecting Live Well Farm, it’s also hurting many of the vendors that couples book to help put on their wedding. Live Well Farm provides the space and accommodations, but many other businesses are involved in hosting a successful event.

“Every wedding involves a caterer, bar service, florist, photographer, videographer, band or DJ, tent vendor, hair and makeup stylists, an officiant and transportation,” Patty Ruppert said. She also said that if the wedding is larger than 100 people, couples must also reserve additional restroom service.

With Live Well Farm hurting and many of its 2020 bookings cancelled or postponed for one year, the numerous small businesses that regularly serve Live Well Farm’s guests are also feeling the pain. Local stores, restaurants and hotels that guests visit during their weekend in Maine are also negatively impacted by the farm’s closure.  

Patty Ruppert says she thought it was necessary to shut the state down when the pandemic reached Maine because we “didn’t know what we were dealing with.” But now, she and her husband are upset with the state’s reopening plan and with Governor Mills for moving the goalposts on what the state must accomplish in order to reopen the economy.

“First we were supposed to flatten the curve. Everyone was patient and did what we were supposed to do,” Patty Ruppert said. “But now she’s moving the goalpost. Now she wants a certain number of people tested. That’s not what we were told when this started.

“Once we knew what we were dealing with and put more testing in place, we have to let the citizenry make their own decisions. People who are immunocompromised should take special care, but the rest of Maine shouldn’t be shut down indefinitely. We can’t strip away the livelihoods of other people.”

On April 24, the Portland Press Herald reported that restricting activity in Maine had flattened to COVID-19 curve in Maine and taken the pressure off of hospitals, yet the governor released a plan for reopening Maine’s economy that places heavy restrictions on business reopenings in areas of the state where population density is low and spread of the virus is not prevalent. Her accompanying “Rural Reopening Plan” did not go as far as many suspected. The slow reopening plans and 14-day quarantine requirement have resulted in dozens of business closures throughout the state.

Patty says she has written to Governor Mills and Department of Economic and Community Development commissioner Heather Johnson but has not received a response. She says she’s trying to engage with her government in a responsible way to safely reopen her business, but is receiving no help or guidance from the state.

She wants to know if events can be held at Live Well Farm this summer since they all take place outside, not in an enclosed environment where it’s easier for the virus to spread. She does not anticipate families will be taking wedding photos in facemasks, but said she’d be willing to do temperature checks of attendees if it allows her to host events this summer.

“All of our weddings take place outside, not indoors,” Patty Ruppert said. “There’s a big difference in that we’re outside, and these are private, invitation-only events involving family and friends. I could temp check everybody, and I’d be willing to do that, as well as do extra sanitation of the farm house in between groups.”

The loss of many bookings for this summer means the Rupperts and Live Well Farm could lose up to a season’s worth of revenue this year. The financial effects could be even greater depending on what regulatory action the state takes in the future.  

As the Ruppert’s watch other states reopen their economies quicker than Maine, they fear they won’t be able to salvage the 2020 season and worry about the livelihood of other small, locally-owned businesses around them.

“There’s added frustration on the part of business owners when you see other states reopening, and they’re not seeing a spike in cases. Government has found a way to control everyone’s behavior, and quite frankly, I think they’re giddy with power.”

Do you own a business that has been significantly impacted by Maine’s COVID-19 response? Share your story by contacting Jake Posik at jposik@mainepolicy.org.

About Jacob Posik

Jacob Posik, of Turner, is the director of communications at Maine Policy Institute and the editor of The Maine Wire. He formerly served as a policy analyst at Maine Policy. Posik can be reached at jposik@mainepolicy.org.

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