An essential need: How islanders find lodging during the pandemic

Nick Battista|Suzanne MacDonald
Posted 2020-04-24
Maine Islands Coalition and partners seek clarity on Maine’s executive order and highlight ongoing needs of island communities

With Maine’s Stay Healthy at Home mandate and an executive order in place closing hotels except for a few very limited purposes, what do you do if you live on one of the offshore islands with limited ferry service and need to go to the mainland to get food or other supplies or visit a doctor?

The answer, it turns out, is to send an email to, the email address for the Maine Office of Tourism that is providing waivers that allow lodging to be provided to islanders.

Steve Lyons, Director of the Maine Office of Tourism, has explained that the office provides waivers to islanders who need to stay on the mainland for medical appointments or accessing other essential services, and that email address is checked daily.

The co-chairs of the Maine Islands Coalition (MIC), the heads of the Penobscot Bay Regional Chamber of Commerce, Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce, Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce, Mount Desert Chamber of Commerce, and the Island Institute recently sent a letter to Governor Mills requesting clarity on exceptions to the executive order’s closing of lodging operations.

The letter noted that:

“Ferry schedules, emergency runs, and weather all mean that islanders need to occasionally find last-minute overnight accommodations on the mainland. In addition, trips to the mainland for doctor visits or other important scheduled appointments often necessitate a planned overnight.”

According to the executive order, lodging operators may provide accommodations for “limited verifiable extenuating circumstances for the care and safety of residents as otherwise approved by the State.” The clear intent of the executive order is to keep people at home and only to go places for essential activities.

The best suggestion for islanders is to send an email in advance of a trip ashore outlining the essential activity that is the reason for the trip. Essential activities includes obtaining groceries, supplies, seeking medical care, caring for a family member and other activities outlined here. If you are unexpectedly caught ashore, it would also be worth sending an email. A list of hotels and inns that may be open for those who have been exempted can be found here. As with many situations, personal relationships can make a difference, and the decision is ultimately up to the lodging operator.

We are grateful to Steve Lyons and the Maine Office of Tourism for facilitating the waiver process and for Steve’s efforts to hear from islanders directly on this and other lodging issues. We also appreciate that Governor Mills and Commissioner Johnson at the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development are taking the concerns of islanders and lodging operators seriously. We know that questions from islanders and lodging operators may persist and encourage the State to provide additional clarity and official guidance as needed.

As with many issues the Island Institute works on, this issue started with an islander asking a question. A few weeks ago, Mott Feibusch, Monhegan’s representative to the MIC, raised a concern about lack of clarity around rules for mainland lodging. At this time of year, Monhegan’s private ferry service is limited to three scheduled boats a week, meaning any trip to the mainland includes an overnight stay and runs can be postponed at the last minute due to weather. He was also worried about where island residents could go when in need of the medical care that was not available to them 12 miles out to sea. The hotels and inns in the Rockland area typically used by Monhegan residents were mostly closed and the operators of those that were open expressed concerns about serving islanders in potential violation of the state order.

This was the kind of issue that made sense for the MIC to consider. For over 17 years, the MIC has been helping to solve problems in the year-round island communities of Maine. As the COVID-19 pandemic reached Maine, the MIC began to meet virtually to discuss how each community was responding to the threat of COVID-19 and what resources were needed.

When issues like the one Mott raised come up, Institute staff typically work with MIC co-chairs to identify colleagues and others who can help MIC members better understand and resolve issues. The MIC has a long history of identifying where there are issues of shared concern and where collective action can help to meet the needs of more than one community—that’s the MIC’s sweet spot for impact.

On April 17, Steve Lyons from Maine’s Office of Tourism joined the most recent virtual call for MIC reps and other island municipal leaders. He listened to the concerns of islanders, and he shared information about the process islanders could use to receive a waiver.

On the same call, we talked about on-island lodging options and how towns and lodging operators were working together to move through “these uncertain times.” We were pleased to have 11 representatives of island hotels, inns, and rentals join the call to share how they are preparing for the months ahead. Inevitably, a number of questions and unmet needs bubbled to the top, thus beginning MIC’s problem-solving cycle again.

In the weeks to come, this powerful, community-led network will undoubtedly facilitate islanders following up and reaching out within and across their communities, as well as their ongoing collaboration with the Island Institute, elected officials, and other key organizations to find practical solutions that make a difference in day-to-day life on Maine’s islands.