Coronavirus

‘Keep Maine Healthy’ or keep the Maine economy struggling?

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Under the “Keep Maine Healthy” program, Governor Janet Mills announced on Monday, June 8, her plan to provide an alternative for the 14-day quarantine rule for visitors to the state. If individuals entering Maine want to avoid quarantine, they can bring in a negative COVID-19 test report obtained from a test conducted no more than 72 hours before they enter.

Initially, the Governor had issued an order exempting only Vermont and New Hampshire from these special requirements. On July 1, Governor Mills also exempted visitors from New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut from this rule. While citing reasons for this decision, the governor referred to the dropping infection rates in these three states. The decision to exempt visitors from VT and NH was based on public health reasons as well.

The first order to impose the 14-day quarantine was met with resistance from local hotels, restaurants, campgrounds and other businesses. The Department of Justice sided with local businesses in May against Gov. Mills, but U.S. District Judge Walker upheld the governor’s order. However, citing Maine’s dependence on tourism, Gov. Mills introduced the testing alternative to help the tourism industry bounce back. It also appears that the continuous lobbying from hotels and restaurants has created the required pressure on the governor to ease restrictions on visitors.

Even though an alternative to quarantine has been introduced, very little of this measure will translate to actual checks against loss of revenues. Steve Hewins, the President and CEO of HospitalityMaine, recently pointed out while speaking for about 1,000 hotels and restaurants in Maine, that tens of thousands of people have canceled their Maine trips since the quarantine was imposed. Hewins also remarked that the testing option is practically no better than the quarantine rule itself. According to Hewins, the hospitality industry’s frustration has been conveyed to the Mills administration.

In addition to the requirement that a visitor either quarantine or produce a negative test, the governor’s office has also published a Certificate of Compliance Form. When visitors enter Maine, they must complete this form indicating whether they are symptomatic, and declare that they have either tested negative in the required time frame or will self-quarantine for 14 days. To some extent, this form is similar to the declarations foreign visitors need to submit when they arrive in the United States. It is a mockery of freedom when Americans need special documents to travel within the republic their forefathers founded on the principles of liberty.

A preliminary economic analysis of this testing alternative and the exemption of certain visitors from turning in the Certificate of Compliance does not reveal positive outcomes. Data from the 2018 Annual Report of the Maine Office of Tourism show that about 41% of all out-of-state overnight visitors in 2018 were from one of the five states whose residents are covered under this exemption. If visitor numbers were to look similar in 2020, about 59% of all overnight visitors to Maine would have to either get tested or self-quarantine for 14 days before enjoying tourist attractions in the state. 

The states that contribute the most to tourism in Maine are Massachusetts and New York, as reported in the same document by the Maine Office of Tourism. NY and MA together account for 44% of overnight visitors in 2018. When it comes to day visitors, Massachusetts sent about 35% of visitors to Maine in 2018. It is notable that per 2018 trends, 46% of day tourism is likely to be severely affected by this economically imprudent policy. 

COVID-19 testing is not only painful owing to the insertion of a swab far into the nostrils of the individual getting tested; it is also not accessible for all. States like Massachusetts do not have enough tests and are struggling to raise their capacities. Residents in some states need to show symptoms such as coughing, while in some other states, residents need to have worked outside their homes for a certain amount of time before they are eligible for free testing. While the average reported cost of COVID-19 is a reasonable $100, the inconvenience surrounding the testing itself is a significant barrier to many who may not need to get tested.

It is understandable that people from nearby states visit Maine for overnight or weekend trips. Expecting them to quarantine for 14 days just so they can enjoy tourist attractions for a couple of days is simply impractical. Even with the alternative of testing, the quarantine rule can be expected to deliver a heavy blow to the Maine economy, where approximately 1 in 6 jobs are in the tourism industry. 

About Lakshya Bharadwaj

Lakshya Bharadwaj graduated from Berea College in May 2019 with majors in Economics and Political Science and a minor in Math. He studied for a Master of Public Administration at Ohio State University for a year, but is currently taking a break and pursuing a Master of Financial Economics at University of Maine beginning in Fall 2020.

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