ELLSWORTH — The message from the City Council last Thursday evening was clear: We welcome visitors and those with seasonal homes to the area. Just not right now.
“We don’t have the health care resources,” said Councilor Michelle Kaplan, who works as a physician’s assistant at Mount Desert Island Hospital.
“We have limited hospital beds, we have limited ICUs and limited capabilities to care for people in droves,” said Kaplan. “Our hospitals can take maybe 25 to 50 patients. We just don’t have the resources to care for the masses.”
Councilors in a 6-1 vote passed a temporary ordinance limiting short-term rentals (including campgrounds and hotels) from renting through the end of April. There are exceptions for health-care and other workers, such as construction crews, who have been deemed essential by the state, and for those receiving General Assistance.
Councilors also unanimously approved a separate resolution that encourages nonresidents to stay in place and not travel and for those who have already arrived in Maine from elsewhere to adhere to the 14-day self-quarantine.
The day after councilors approved the ordinance and resolution, a separate order came down from Governor Janet Mills.
That order suspended lodging operations (including hotels, short-term rentals, campgrounds and RV parks) throughout the state beginning on April 5 at noon, except for businesses catering to those in vulnerable populations and “for health-care workers or other workers deemed necessary to support public health, public safety or critical infrastructure.”
It also mandated a 14-day quarantine for anyone traveling to Maine, regardless of their state of residency, with violations punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. Those under the quarantine restrictions are allowed to leave their homes to engage in “essential services,” such as grocery shopping.
In the debate over the Ellsworth ordinance limiting lodging, Councilor Marc Blanchette was the lone voice of dissent, worrying that “Are we asking fellow Americans to stay the hell out of Ellsworth? Because if we are, it’s a new day in Ellsworth.”
Blanchette worried that it would send the wrong message, be hard to enforce and that “The disease is here. I don’t see how this is going to stop it. It’s not as if people have to report when they cross the bridge in the Kittery.”
But the rest of the council was largely in agreement that everyone, no matter where they are, should stay in place, and that those who have already arrived, particularly from hotspots such as New York and New Jersey, should self-quarantine for 14 days, meaning not go out for groceries and have someone delivery necessities.
The Ellsworth Police Department and code enforcement officer would have the ability to enforce the ordinance, which includes fines (between $100 and $2,500 for each day a short-term renter is in violation). Councilors also amended the ordinance to include a provision for staff to use their discretion.
“You can’t craft it and cover everything,” said Councilor John Phillips. “We’ll just have to rely on our people to make some common-sense decisions.”
Ellsworth Police Chief Glenn Moshier said his officers would take a largely “educational” role, at least at first.
“I think our first and most important role to play would be in an educational component, much like we’re doing with the Governor’s emergency order,” said Moshier.
He added the department doesn’t have intentions “at this point” of more stringent measures such as setting up roadblocks.
“Where we are in this country is far worse than any other country has experienced it,” said Council Chairman Dale Hamilton, who noted that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo warned that his state might run out of ventilators.
Dr. Nirav Shah of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirmed last week that the Strategic National Stockpile has been largely depleted and the state is now looking for an additional 400 ventilators on the open market.
“It wouldn’t take a big spread in our community to have a worse scenario,” said Hamilton.
Kaplan noted that even if a shipment of thousands of ventilators came in, Hancock County, which has one of the oldest populations in the state, lacks the personnel to run them. There are 127 respiratory therapists actively practicing in Maine, said Shah last Thursday, although the state is looking to bring health-care professionals out of retirement and some rules have been relaxed to allow for an increase in personnel.
“Each hospital has limited professionals. It’s more than protective equipment, it’s more than just ventilators,” said Kaplan. “We don’t have the personnel.”
Kaplan said she has seen numerous patients from out of state who say they came to Maine to escape the virus and “They’re not even self-isolating. It’s pretty scary.”