Happy Memorial Day weekend. And welcome to the most unusual, unofficial beginning of summer of your life.
This holiday weekend will be defined by the coronavirus, but it’s also a demarcation as all 50 states begin to reopen. Each governor faces their own unique challenges and trade-offs, but the restart process takes on a special urgency in areas with summer-oriented economies—from the Jersey shore to Lake Tahoe to the Great Lakes to the Utah parks to the Texas coast. (Americans typically spend about $100 billion on summer vacations each year. And that doesn’t take into account all of the indirect spend that is connected to domestic tourism.)
And as you might know from my recent writing, I’m living in one of those places, more precisely the coast of Maine, which morphs from freezing and nearly-empty in the winter, to less-freezing and somewhat populated in the summer.
Over 37 million out-of-staters visited Maine in 2019—this is ‘Vacationland’ after all—who spent some $6.5 billion, according to the Guardian. A few hearty souls come to ski, but most arrive during one of Maine’s two warmer seasons. (There’s July, August and winter.)
How bad’s the pain going to be? Who knows. Up and down the coast at iconic establishments like the Fat Boy Drive In Brunswick, Red’s Eats in Wiscasset and Moody’s Diner in Waldoboro, restaurant and business owners are trying to assess what the summer will be like.
“We all know that restaurants are clearly hammered,” says Jim Damicis, senior vice president at Camoin 310, a national economic development analysis firm that works with business and government in southern Maine. “You’ve got to make your money Memorial Day through August. You need crowds. A lobster pound restaurant or a brew pub has to be busy to make money. You can’t operate at 40%.”
And then there are summer camps, a big business for the state that generate some $200 million each year. Looks like some will open and some will not. The state released new guidelines for camps which say “activities that involve physical contact are discouraged, as are singing and yelling because they increase the spread of respiratory droplets.”
Good luck with that.
‘Focus has been on safety’
But Maine is hardly just a summertime fantasyland. This is a tough, rugged state with nagging problems, like opioid addiction and the oldest population in the country—20.6% is 65 or older—making it particularly vulnerable to this disease.
The state is tucked away up there. Maine produced $68 billion in goods and services last year, which ranks 43rd in terms of state GDP, below Delaware and above Rhode Island. With a population of 1.3 million—Maine’s biggest city, Portland, has only 66,000—per capita income comes out to about $50,000, well below the national average of $65,000. Some 95% of the people who live in Maine are white, making it one of, if not the least diverse states in the U.S.
Yes, blueberrying, lobstering, potato farming and L.L. Bean are big businesses, but paper and lumber are still sizable employers. Shipbuilding too, with the Bath Iron Works, (the BIW)—now a subsidiary of General Dynamics and employing 6,000—building destroyers, combat ships and landing craft. The Yard, as it’s sometimes called, a massive workplace along the Kennebec River in Bath, has stayed open as an essential business, and to date only two workers are known to have contracted COVID-19.
“Shutting down [wouldn’t have been] easy,” says BIW President Dirk Lesko, “But it’s certainly easier than to think through what changes you make and how to make sure it’s effective and how to communicate with people [when staying open].”
Are these new processes hurting the bottom line? “Definitely impactful, definitely impactful,” he says. “To be honest with you I don’t know the costs at this point. It sounds crazy but we have no choice but to do these things. The focus has been on safety.