BAR HARBOR — This isn’t what a Vacationland Memorial Day weekend is supposed to look like.
For folks in Downeast Maine, the final weekend in May kicks off the summer season. The warmer weather of the late spring arrives as towns throw parades to honor those who served their country and tourists and summer residents arrive to take advantage of a three-day weekend.
This year, though, many of the scenes traditionally associated with Memorial Day went by the wayside as a result of the novel coronavirus pandemic. With towns canceling parades and local residents and tourists not flocking to local parks and businesses at usual rates, the weekend was instead a sobering one for Hancock County communities.
“Compared to what you usually see, it felt like a ghost town,” said Blue Hill Peninsula Chamber of Commerce Board President Chrissy Allen. “We’re all used to all of this stuff happening [this weekend], and to not have that was definitely a different feeling.”
In past years, Memorial Day weekend has seen locals and tourists heading to local trails, beaches, rivers, lakes and parks. With the throes of winter and early spring gone at last, the three-day weekend is a great opportunity to get outdoors and experience the natural wonders Maine has to offer.
Yet with travel nearing historic lows during a time of self-quarantine mandates, lodging restrictions and social distancing guidelines, the usual tourist influx was not in the cards this Memorial Day. Not even Mainers, for whom the 14-day self-quarantine mandate for out-of-state travel would not have been an issue, seemed to descend on Hancock County’s popular tourist destinations en masse.
Traffic statewide over the weekend was down 33 percent, the Bangor Daily News reported.
“I drove through Bar Harbor Saturday and Monday, and I was pretty surprised to see downtown so empty,” said Alf Anderson, executive director for the Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce. “Even within the state, folks just didn’t come out, and I’m honestly just not sure what the reasoning was.”
The influx in activity that usually happens during Memorial Day weekend provides a major boon to Hancock County businesses. Many of those businesses are accustomed to serving high volumes as locals and tourists dine out and visit local stores for gifts, groceries, supplies and whatever else they might need.
With a massive decrease in foot traffic and certain establishments facing restrictions amidst the state’s phased-in reopening plan, those businesses experienced significant revenue shortfalls over the weekend. In Bar Harbor, Anderson said some retail businesses saw declines of as much as 80-95 percent compared to the same time a year ago.
“Businesses here are built on places being full this time of year,” Anderson said. “This is the weekend that gives businesses and workers a sense of what things are going to look like, and people not coming at all makes things really tough. … Our business community wouldn’t survive based on these numbers.”
The week leading up to Memorial Day is also a time when many seasonal residents arrive in Hancock County from other states. Yet with the current climate, Allen said, patterns this year have looked a little bit different.
“You have a lot of summer residents who came up to Maine earlier this year because of the virus,” Allen said. “Others are still waiting or have maybe even decided not to come at all.”
The cancellations of parades also gave this Memorial Day a different feel compared to past years. As the virus continues to provide a threat, another patriotic holiday in about a month’s time could see a similar fate.
“Fourth of July is another big day for us, and we could have the same thing happen then as well,” Allen said. “It’s definitely sad because these events really help bring people together in the community.”
The weekend also came as the state’s biggest tourism driver, Acadia National Park, was largely closed. While hiking trails or walking or bike riding on the Park Loop Road was permitted, the park’s roads are closed to motor vehicles. Memorial Day came a week before the scheduled reopening of the Hulls Cove Visitor Center and three weeks before that of the park’s campgrounds on June 15.
With lodging and travel restrictions still in effect, communities are expecting the lack of hustle and bustle seen this past weekend to be a theme throughout the summer. Yet while out-of-state license plates might not be as prevalent this year, Anderson believes the current climate provides a great chance for Mainers that sometimes steer clear of the area during tourist season to pay a visit.
“This is the year for those folks to put all those fears away, come down here and see what we have to offer,” Anderson said. “There’s really no better time.”