On March 5, Gov. Janet Mills released a plan to exempt all states from travel restrictions by May 1 and to increase indoor and outdoor gathering capacity to 75% and 100%, respectively, in preparation for the traditional opening of Maine’s tourism season over Memorial Day weekend. However, many workers in the hospitality industry will not have been eligible for vaccinations by the time the state reopens, exposing an already vulnerable population of essential staff to undue risk.
While Maine’s hospitality industry has suffered immense losses as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, a vaccination plan that doesn’t account for workers’ concerns will only undermine any potential economic recovery.
Mills’ Moving Maine Forward plan is, in and of itself, something that Maine’s hotel and restaurant owners and staff dearly need. According to HospitalityMaine, about 10% of hospitality businesses went out of business in 2020, and the Bangor Daily News has reported that Maine restaurant’s taxable sales declined 25% in December alone. Sen. Angus King has publicly lamented restaurant sale losses of about $240 billion and job losses of around 2.5 million nationally, in an effort to stir up support for stimulus spending on the hospitality industry in the Senate, but every solution besides reopening is not much more than a Band-Aid.
However, any attempt at reopening restaurants and hotels for the event reservations and tourism that once powered the industry will not work without, well, workers. Without a place in the state’s current vaccination timeline, many simply will not return.
On March 3, the governor’s office made a significant change to the state’s vaccination plan by shifting from a complex phase structure that prioritized health care personnel and long-term care facility residents to a logistically simpler system that structures eligibility based on age, in addition to federally required eligibility for all members of the education workforce.
The current plan only expands eligibility to residents below the age of 40 in June and below the age of 30 in July. This is to prioritize older Mainers who are more likely to experience severe symptoms and place more strain on the healthcare system. The only problem is that much of the young hospitality staff will be expected to expose themselves to out-of-state germs for months with lower capacity restrictions before they can receive a vaccine.
Rich Shambaugh is one Maine restaurant owner who was incredulous in response to the state’s conflicting plans, according to the Portland Press Herald.
“Without being able to vaccinate our staff, and the floodgates of exposure from other states having been ratcheted open, how can we possibly return to normal operations?” Shambaugh asked in a letter to state officials.
Ted Hugger, owner of the Cedar Crest Inn in Camden and the Cod Cove Inn in Edgecomb, has already noticed an uptick in wedding reservations for the summer in response to the state’s plan, but he told the BDN that he is concerned that rehiring enough staff “will be an issue.”
The obvious limitation for any plan regarding vaccinations is the number of vaccinations that are actually available; since President Biden has required states to prioritize all educators, supplies have been even more strained. It bears acknowledging that adding another large demographic to an already burdened eligibility plan is not quite a politically viable decision for the governor or state leaders.
However, since Biden has invoked the Defense Production Act and forecast vaccine eligibility expanding to all adults come May 1, that could give state leaders significant wiggle room. Otherwise, the wisest decision could be to simply revise the Moving Maine Forward plan to be less ambitious.
Chloe Hepburn, a former UMaine student and staff member at the Maine Campus and current restaurant and hotel employee in the Portland area, created a Change.org petition to Maine leaders calling on Gov. Mills to include essential workers in vaccination plans.
“It goes without saying that we all want life to go back to normal, but lifting these restrictions before vaccinating the employees that keep Maine’s tourism industry alive is a dangerous step backwards,” Hepburn writes on the petition’s page, which can be found here.
Balancing people’s health and a state’s economic woes is not simple, and neither are the logistical details involved in creating and implementing a comprehensive vaccination plan. With that said, that is exactly what Maine leaders need to do in order to stand on ethically solid ground and reopen the state to the rest of the country.