WINTER HARBOR — The coronavirus pandemic has brought uncertainty, travel restrictions and the call for businesses to acclimate to new safety precautions. Some institutions, like campgrounds run by the National Park Service, including the Schoodic Woods Campground, decided to take the season off entirely. As a result, this tourist season was a bit of a mixed bag on the Schoodic Peninsula, with some businesses thriving, some getting by and most finding ways to adapt to the times of COVID-19.
Compared to last year, visitation to the Schoodic region of Acadia National Park was down nearly 49 percent in June, nearly 35 percent in July and approximately 25 percent in August, according to a year-to-date report on the National Park Service’s website. With the closure of the Schoodic Woods Campground this season, the park lost its chance to re-attract the 23,210 overnight visitors who stayed at the campground by last August. While this affected certain businesses in the area, not all were harmed. Some, in fact, saw higher sales than last year.
“This season was phenomenal,” said Sky DiRuggiero, owner of Sea Schoodic Kayak and Bike in Winter Harbor. “I surpassed what I did last year.”
DiRuggiero owns and operates the kayak and bike rental business herself, noting that she did not have to adjust working accommodations for other employees. This is her second year in business offering freshwater kayak and bike rentals. Next year, she is looking to expand to include guided sea kayak tours.
The bulk of this year’s business was tourists coming from places like New York and New Jersey, so that they could escape larger cities and “enjoy Maine,” says DiRuggiero. Feedback from customers included Maine feeling “safer” and the opportunities for outdoor activities allowed tourists to “come here and breathe.” She says despite the Schoodic Woods Campground closure, visitors still came from wherever they could find accommodations, including Bangor.
In addition to out-of-state visitors, DiRuggiero says many Maine families decided to make the trip to the Peninsula as well, many for the first time.
DiRuggiero uses an online booking system, so customers were able to schedule the time they wanted to pick up their gear and it would be waiting outside for them. “Everybody was really good about taking turns and keeping distance between families,” she says regarding gear pick-up. “Just about everybody, if not everybody showed up with a mask on or had one in hand.”
Sea Schoodic Kayak and Bike will close for the season on Oct. 3, which is the typical time of year DiRuggiero would close, anyway.
For the Winter Harbor 5 and 10, business was more of a mix, says owner Peter Drinkwater, who was hurt by the Schoodic Woods Campground closure. His business typically sells charcoal and Schoodic Woods T-shirts to campers. Another factor Drinkwater
experienced was the closure of the Island Explorer bus system, which would typically transport shoppers around Winter Harbor who had taken the ferry from Bar Harbor to explore Schoodic for the day.
The ferry that provides trips from Bar Harbor to Winter Harbor continued to operate, says Captain Steve Pagels, owner and manager of Downeast Windjammer Cruise Lines. The ferry experienced a “significant drop in numbers,” he said, due to the closures of Schoodic Marine Center, Schoodic Woods Campground and the Island Explorer, which many day-trippers rely on to explore Schoodic. However, “we persevered,” said Pagels, noting the importance of continuing to provide the service as well as keep his employees working. The ferry operated “on a somewhat reduced schedule” and ran through the end of September.
In addition to the campground closure, the cancellation of the Winter Harbor Lobster Festival and the in-person Schoodic Arts Festival “really hurt us,” Drinkwater says. Despite the drop in business, he says July and August sales were “pretty good,” and that previous numbers could have been potentially met if the area’s annual festivals had happened. He says his customers included “a lot of staycation people” and customers from Maine.
However, Drinkwater credits the store’s adaptability for being able to hang on during tough times, noting that the store became a destination for hand sanitizer and mask purchases.
Drinkwater says many shoppers this year have avoided big-box stores and have been “supporting local stores, which is very nice.” He noticed that customers seemed to be “cautious” about venturing out and not shopping as much as in previous years. “We are still staying fairly busy,” said Drinkwater, despite the unique times. He is hopeful that the recent lift on travel restrictions to Massachusetts residents will help his yearround business. For Bob Hammond and Valerie Whitmer-Hammond, owners of Antiques and Artisans in Winter Harbor, this season has been “very strange,” but nonetheless profitable. While foot traffic has been significantly down, with a 30 to 50 percent drop in customers, sales are up 25 to 30 percent, Whitmer-Hammond says. “It makes no sense to us,” she laughed, “we’re kind of shocked.”
The shop, which only allows five customers in the store at a time to comply with COVID19 guidelines, carries products from 20 local artists and a small number of antique dealers. Whitmer-Hammond guesses that the reason for the uptick in sales is that “people are supporting us.” She guesses that “maybe [customers] don’t want to shop at big-box stores.” In addition, she said customers have been purchasing more of the shop’s more expensive items.