Maine Hospitality Industry Reacts as COVID Outbreak Tied to Wedding Grows

“My reaction was disappointment because so many restaurants and hotels have done an unbelievable job keeping people safe,” said the CEO of Hospitality Maine

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The number of coronavirus cases tied to a recent wedding and reception in Maine now stands at 53, with one death.

On Saturday, the Maine Center for Disease Control announced dozens of new positive tests associated with events at the Tri-Town Baptist Church in East Millinocket and The Big Moose Inn in Millinocket.

On Friday, Millinocket Regional Hospital had announced one of the people connected to the events died.

Last week, the inn was issued an “imminent health hazard citation” by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention for having 65 people in an indoor space while only 50 people are allowed under Maine’s COVID-19 laws.

For Maine’s hospitality industry, the news is both saddening and a disappointment after what has otherwise been a relatively outbreak-free summer for hotels and restaurants in the state.

“It’s just so sad when people are trying to celebrate joyous event like a wedding,” said Steven Hewins, CEO of Hospitality Maine, which represents over 1,000 members in Maine’s hospitality and tourism sectors.

“My reaction was disappointment because so many restaurants and hotels have done an unbelievable job keeping people safe,” he said.

A Maine inn was cited Friday after a coroanvirus outbreak connected to the death of one person and 32 other illnesses.

Hewins told NECN and NBC10 Boston that Big Moose Inn is part of his organization but he had not spoken to the business’ owners and was waiting for contact tracing and an ongoing Maine CDC investigation to conclude before taking more formal steps with the venue.

“I’m still waiting to get the final details on what took place," he said. "We’re not sure what kind of conversation we’re going to have with them at this point.”

A request for comment from the Big Moose Inn made Monday was not immediately returned.

Meanwhile, Hewins said he is speaking to other businesses and members, part of a monthslong effort to communicate and share best practices outlined by the state at the beginning of Maine's tourism season.

“We communicate daily with all of our members and the industry, making sure that they understand the protocols and I know they’re trying to do the right thing,” Hewins said.

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One of the businesses that has helped organize multiple gatherings amid the pandemic this course summer is Experience Maine.

The company’s founder and CEO, Rachel Sagiroglu, said she’s focused on moving events outside and developing a stringent safety protocol to keep people healthy.

“We’ve not had incidents so far and I think that’s because we’re doing our due diligence,” she said.

Among the events Sagiroglu said she’s helped arrange are lobster bakes, family reunions and a company board meeting with about 27 guests from both within and outside of Maine, with most hailing from the Northeast.

“Everything was under a tent,” she explained, adding, “the dinners were outside on the patio. Any opportunity we could, we had the guests outside. We took everyone’s temperature when they arrived, they all wore masks except for at dinner, we made sure there was hand sanitizer. We had signage as well, to make sure they knew where to go.”

Nine breweries from the Connecticut Brewers Guild collaborated to create a new limited release beer, the Guild Pils, with proceeds going to unemployed hospitality workers during the coronavirus pandemic.

Going forward, both Sagiroglu and Hewins believe many businesses and the hospitality industry as a whole will be making a concerted push to adapt outdoor spaces so that they are comfortable in cooler weather with features like tents and heaters.

“We’re going to have to adapt and we need to start taking about this now,” said Hewins, who added that restaurants he represents were also hoping to see more indoor dining allowed in Maine if case numbers overall remain low.

As of Monday, Maine CDC spokesman Robert Long said, “there are no other outbreak investigations involving dining or lodging establishments,” in Maine, though there were “eight open workplace investigations.”

NBC/The Associated Press
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