Northeast travel restrictions add to small business owners’ struggles

gregobagel/iStockBy ARIELLE MITROPOULOS, ABC NEWS

(BOSTON) — Every year, more than 20 million visitors flock to Boston’s Faneuil Hall Marketplace, which, after being closed for several months, reopened July 1.

But for the first time in its nearly 300-year history, it’s largely empty.

“There is no foot traffic,” business owner Sara Youngelson told ABC News. “It is so far and few between, it’s just been really, really tough.”

For Youngelson, who owns five businesses in the Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market area, the past five months have been some of the most difficult of her 30-year career as a merchant in the historic marketplace

Many merchants and shop owners across the Northeast were optimistic that reopening later in the summer could help offset economic damage caused by the pandemic, but with newly instated state travel restrictions affecting tourism, many are no longer as hopeful.

As novel coronavirus cases surged across the country, Massachusetts and seven other Northeast states — Rhode Island, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, New York and New Jersey — implemented a 14-day self-quarantines, albeit with regulations that varied by state.

“Tourism is a major part of our business,” Youngelson explained. “We rely on the tour buses, we rely on planes coming in at Logan Airport. We rely on trains, we rely on cruise ships.”

The new restrictions have only further reduced the number of tourists, who, from mid-May through October, help generate most of the revenue for these businesses.

There are nearly 150 businesses in Faneuil Hall, mostly small businesses. Many already have closed or are facing a “bleak future,” according to Youngelson, who said her sales down 88%, on average, compared with last year.

Small businesses have been particularly hard hit during the pandemic, with many forced to lay off employees as bills and rent payments mounted. A study by the National Bureau of Economic Research projects that about 2% of U.S. small businesses, approximately 100,000, have permanently closed since the pandemic ramped up in March.

In New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, travelers from states with high rates of COVID-19 are required to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival.

“As states around the country experience increasing community spread, New York is taking action to ensure the continued safety of our phased reopening,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said on Tuesday. “Our entire response to this pandemic has been by the numbers, and we’ve set metrics for community spread just as we set metrics for everything.”

Similarly, although although Maine has lifted its 14-day quarantine requirement for travelers from five states — New Hampshire, Vermont, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut — people arriving from Massachusetts and Rhode Island still must quarantine upon arrival.

Maine typically sees some 22 million summer tourists, who help account for 17% of the state’s employment. More than a third of those visitors, especially day-trippers, were from Massachusetts in 2019.

Popular destinations such as Bar Harbor and Mount Desert Island, for which tourism is “the lifeblood of the economy,” are really struggling, said Alf Anderson, executive director of the Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce.

“Overall, most seasonal businesses are reporting losses in the neighborhood of 70% to 75% compared to 2019, and are just hoping to be able to hold on and be around for a fresh start in 2021,” Anderson told ABC News.

Not all business owners see eye-to-eye on coronavirus-related safety measures.

Joe Minutolo, co-owner of Bar Harbor Bicycle Shop, said that although business has slowed he “respects what the state has come up with.”

But Jean Ochtera, who co-owns Innat Bay Ledge Inn in Bar Harbor with her husband, Jack, strongly disagrees with the steps taken by Gov. Janet Mills, saying she’s “being unrealistic.”

“There are many families who are losing everything, who no longer have a livelihood. They can’t support their children,” Ochtera told ABC News. “I understand our key cases will increase if Governor Mills opens up the state, but at least it will give some viability.”

Much of the money these businesses earn during the summer sustains them throughout the winter, explained Ochtera, who said she’s only making about 20% of what she earned in 2019.

“I have returned over $60,000 by the first of May for summer reservations. We can never make up the losses,” she added.

A spokeswoman for Mills said in a statement to ABC News, in part, that the governor “is working hard to protect the health of Maine people and ensure that our state is a safe place for people to visit this summer. She, too, is deeply concerned about our economy, but she can think of nothing more devastating than an outbreak or resurgence of this deadly, untreatable virus during the height of tourism season.”

Other states nearby still are uncertain about the long-term economic consequences.

Among the nearly a dozen small businesses along the Jersey Shore contacted by ABC News, many reported that while some local customers had returned, overall foot traffic remained down.

“People would rather stay home and barbecue,” said Julia Kurdyla, manager of the Country Kettle Fudge shop in Beach Haven.

Caroline Ranoia, who owns the speciality soap store Blue Eden in Stone Harbor, New Jersey, told ABC News that it has been especially difficult because “90% of my customers are tourists.”

“We have a really short season — it’s only about 10 weeks for us to really make our money,” she added.

Josephine Guarnaccia, a long-time innkeeper at the Mermaid Inn, in Mystic, Connecticut, told ABC News she’s seeing about a third as many visitors compared to normal levels.

Randy Fiveash, Director of the Connecticut Office of Tourism, told ABC News that the state’s leisure and hospitality industry was the sector hardest hit by the pandemic. However, he said that although tough decisions about travel advisories had to be made, he is “cautiously optimistic” that tourism will come back in the long run.

Back in Boston, Youngelson remains concerned, particularly for many families who own businesses in Faneuil Hall Marketplace have done so for generations.

“It is going to be very difficult to stay afloat if this continues,” she said. “I don’t know how many people are going to be able to keep their doors open.”

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