ELLSWORTH — The state this week unveiled a proposed alternative to the 14-day quarantine for visitors in an attempt to salvage the summer season amidst the coronavirus pandemic.
Under the three-part plan, which includes compliance forms, expanded testing and increased symptom checking, visitors who have received a negative COVID-19 test no later than 72 hours prior to arrival are allowed to forgo the 14-day quarantine upon arrival in Maine. Individuals may be tested in Maine, but they must quarantine while awaiting the results.
Visitors from New Hampshire and Vermont are exempt from the testing and 14-day quarantine requirement altogether, “Because,” the Governor’s office noted in a press release, “When adjusted for population, the prevalence of active cases of COVID-19 in these states is similar to that in Maine.”
Seasonal residents who own homes here also would have the option of presenting a negative test in lieu of the 14-day quarantine, which goes into effect immediately, although state officials are still encouraging them to be tested before they come to Maine. They could be tested while in Maine but would need to quarantine until results come back.
Children under 18 are not required to prove they’ve received a negative test under the new plan. Adults are “more likely to be carriers, to be pre-symptomatic,” said Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in a briefing on Tuesday. “By focusing on the adults, we believe by implication we’re also capturing any risk the children may pose.”
The rest of the precautionary rules still apply to visitors, said state officials.
“It doesn’t mean you’re free — it means use a cloth face covering, keep your social distance and enjoy Maine,” said Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew in a call on Monday.
Visitors should be tested and receive results in their home state before coming to Maine. Being tested while in Maine, said Governor Janet Mills in a call with reporters on Monday, is “a backup option only, not a first choice for them.”
Overnight visitors also will be asked to sign a compliance form, provided at all Maine lodging, campgrounds, seasonal rentals, overnight camps and other commercial lodging (including short-term rentals) stating either that they’ve received a negative COVID-19 test, that they will quarantine in Maine for 14 days, or that they have already completed their quarantine in Maine. Day-trippers to Maine are not required to sign a compliance form or to quarantine.
The forms will be kept on file at the lodging establishment for a period of time (perhaps 30 days, said Mills). Visitors “may” be required to provide proof of their negative test result if they’re asked.
“We don’t want to make the hotel staff become a repository for HIPAA-protected information,” said Mills. “Someone may ask for the test result, confirming it.”
The new rules go into effect on July 1, when lodging establishments may begin serving residents outside of Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. A draft of the form is posted on the state’s website at maine.gov/covid19/restartingmaine/keepmainehealthy.
Following the state’s announcement, the board of the Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce voted unanimously against the plan.
In a letter to Chamber members this week, Chamber Executive Director Alf Anderson said that the state’s requirements for out-of-state visitors are “unworkable, in the board’s view.”
“With yesterday’s announcement from Governor Mills there was another round of lodging cancellations and we have now reached a point where our season is all but lost,” he continued. “We are in need of immediate action to avoid a catastrophic closing of businesses.”
Nearly half of the state’s visitors come from Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey, where the presence of the virus is 8 to 11 times higher than the population-adjusted cases in Maine. Maine has the nation’s highest number of vacation homes as a percentage of housing stock, according to the state.
Visitors and residents also can expect to see more symptom checking in high-traffic areas, such as visitors’ centers and beach parking lots. The state plans to partner with the Maine Community College System to enlist Maine students in the health professions to ask visitors questions and offer advice.
State officials were looking for “as broad of an economic reopening as possible,” said Heather Johnson, commissioner of the Maine Department of Economic Community Development (DECD), on Monday.
“Many other states have imposed capacity limits on hotels, motels and campgrounds,” said Mills. “We didn’t do that.”
But some hospitality leaders criticized the quarantine alternative. When the draft plan was circulated for comment, said Eben Salvatore, operations manager for Bar Harbor Hotels, the group of local hotels owned by the Walsh family, “Hospitality Maine gave them more than 100 comments, all opposed. Not a single person is saying this is good.”
Nothing in the draft plan appears to have changed as a result of that input, he said, but the state leaders “still have the nerve to say they’ve worked with us.”
The Department of Transportation also will place signs at key sites instructing people to stay home or seek medical care if they have symptoms of COVID-19 and informing visitors of the quarantine or testing requirements.
Alaska announced a similar plan last week, with a form for travelers that includes information such as a declaration certifying a negative PCR test or a vow to self-quarantine for 14 days. The form also asks about symptoms and for an address where the visitor will be quarantined, if that is required and requires that children be able to provide evidence of a negative test.
As of Monday, Hancock County had recorded 12 confirmed cases of the virus. Ten residents had reportedly recovered, one had passed away and one had been hospitalized at some point. Maine recorded its 100th death of a person testing positive for COVID-19 on Tuesday and recorded 18 new cases. Daily case numbers have been trending lower despite increased testing capacity; there were 514 active cases of the virus as of Tuesday afternoon.
“Our numbers are low right now,” said Mills, but numerous public health leaders, including the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Dr. Anthony Fauci, “all predict a resurgence in late summer, early fall. We want to protect against that.”
Dr. Shah noted on Monday that “The low numbers … are not an accident. They are the direct and beneficial result of early quick action by the government” coupled with buy-in from residents.