The tourism industry is the backbone of our Maine economy. Every year, tens of millions of people cross our border to look at the lighthouses on our coast, to fish in our lakes, to eat our lobster and blueberries and to take in all that Maine has to offer. Many of those visits happen in the summer. As the COVID-19 crisis carries on, it is becoming a major threat to our summer tourism industry.

In 2018, 37 million people visited Maine. Those guests added $610 million to our state tax base and were responsible for $2.6 billion going directly to workers in Maine through the 109,501 positions created by the tourism industry. Many of those employees are seasonal workers who come on to ensure that visitors have the best possible experience at restaurants, in hotels and on excursions.

We know COVID-19 poses a threat. As it stands, to protect public health, we are adhering to our Stay Safer at Home order. This plan gradually reopens some kinds of businesses over the course of the summer if we continue to avoid a spike in COVID-19 cases. But even those finding ways to stay open or reopen are seeing smaller profits because of a significant decrease in business.

Let us be clear: This Stay Safer at Home order is a necessary action that we support. Because of Maine’s attention to social distancing, we are seeing lower COVID-19 numbers than in many other states of a similar size and stature. But without a doubt, it has a difficult economic impact.

Steps have been taken to help keep small businesses and Mainers afloat. The Small Business Administration expanded disaster loans and forgivable loans for businesses keeping workers on their payroll. The Maine Legislature created new zero-interest consumer finance loans. On the unemployment side, benefits have been expanded.

Though all of those supports can be used by the tourism industry, they will not be enough to fill the gap that will come as our public health emergency extends and we cannot fully open up our tourist economy. It is all too likely that many of the small businesses that live off our summer visitors will be forced to close for good rather incur the debt of paying for rent or employees they cannot support. Without the influx of visitors to their communities, restaurants, bars and the like will be hit too hard to stay open, further reducing municipal tax bases.

For towns like ours that thrive on tourism during those precious summer months, supporting the industry has been at the center of our minds since this crisis began. But it’s time we develop creative solutions on the statewide level.

As we think about solutions for the tourism industry, we need to consider ways to address our inability to fully open this summer. We must work together regionally to ensure we have a unified, complementary approach across communities as pieces of the economy do reopen. We also need to be aware of what’s happening in the states around us and of who may be drawn to Maine. Mainers can share their suggestions on the Department of Economic and Community Development’s website. We cannot make decisions in a vacuum, and our tourism industry needs guidance and time to prepare.

In Maine, the Maine Tourism Association has worked with private-sector partners to put one item in place to support the tourist economy, the Maine Tourism Relief Fund. This fund will give some financial assistance to tourism-related businesses that have been affected by COVID-19. That’s a start, but at grants of $1,000 per small business and $500 per employee, it’s not enough to address the downturn that may come.

Like Maine, a few other states have started a comprehensive plan to support the industry. In Massachusetts they’re considering directing Rainy Day funds toward food service and hospitality workers. Several states have started task forces to develop a tourism strategy. But as the 11th most vulnerable state to COVID-19 tourism problems, according to WalletHub, Maine can’t wait to see what other states do.

From deeper conversation at the local level, to further action from Gov. Mills and a push for funds in the next federal stimulus package, now is the time to make a plan for our tourism industry.

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