When Monhegan’s Island Inn opened its doors for the summer on June 22, a full month after its usual opening date, co-owners Michael Brassard and Jaye Morency knew the inn’s business would suffer. The question was: how much?
“We were anticipating significant losses,” Brassard said. “We did really conservative projections. They were ‘worst case.’”
By contacting previous guests and offering a discount for Maine residents, Brassard and Morency have been able to recoup some of the business they lost due to the coronavirus pandemic and do better than their most pessimistic projections.
“We’re seeing new people from around the state, which is good,” Brassard said. “We’re getting good feedback on that discount. People took advantage of a deal that was not there before.”
For visitors familiar with the island’s summer tourism industry, this season might come as a bit of a shock. Ferry services are operating at roughly half-capacity to meet requirements for physical distancing, so the influx of people for day trips or weekend stays is necessarily a fraction of what it would otherwise be.
On the recommendation of the Monhegan COVID-19 Task Force, convened in March to help the island’s government design and implement a strategy to keep visitors and residents safe, masks are required on the wharf and in the village area.
“It’s completely the same and completely different at the same time, because Monhegan doesn’t change,” Brassard said.
Many of the island’s attractions – like hiking, stargazing and bird-watching – involve little risk of transmission and are relatively unaffected by the public health crisis.
The pandemic did, however, impact a major part of the island’s normal summer activity – its art community.
Many of Monhegan’s famed painting studios are shuttered for the summer, and the artists workshops that typically abound will not host sessions until 2021.
For art lovers, though, the island still has some of its usual draws.
The Monhegan Museum of Art and History opened partially June 24, but opted to keep its gift shop and two of its primary exhibition spaces closed until next year.
Visitors can reserve tickets on the museum’s website for 30-minute windows to view an exhibition entitled “Wintering Over – Year-round in Maine.” The show celebrates Maine’s bicentennial and showcases the work of several artists who lived all year on Monhegan.
The museum’s operations manager, Tara Hire, said ticket sales are hardly even comparable to previous years. The museum opted to extend memberships purchased after Sept. 30, 2019 into 2021. With the loss of revenue from membership renewals and gift shop purchases, coupled with anemic ticket sales, Hire said the museum is at about 10% of its usual income at this point in the season.
Losses like this are a sobering reality for many Monhegan residents who make their living catering to tourists. The harm to businesses offsets whatever benefits a quieter season might bring.
“It might be nice to have fewer people on the hiking trails, but it’s hard because you know what it means,” Hire said. “It has a huge impact on people who own businesses.”
Visitors to Lupine Gallery have been few, but what co-owner Bill Boynton has really missed since the gallery opened July 1 is the feeling of community a typical summer brings to the island, through concerts and poetry readings, all of which have been canceled this year.
“It’s a very different life than what we’re used to in the summer,” Boynton said. “It’s the time of year when we get to see our friends. It is very surreal.”
Despite this season’s challenges, Monhegan businesses are already looking to the future.
Brassard said that The Barnacle, a wharf-side cafe that he and Morency also own, has made changes to accommodate physical distancing that might be here to stay.
The Barnacle now has a tented outdoor seating area, a takeout window, and a large chalkboard menu affixed to the building’s exterior, all innovations Brassard thinks will make the cafe more efficient while preserving its rustic charm.
“I would characterize people as being very happy to be here, and very grateful of what we’ve been able to preserve, even while changing almost everything,” Brassard said. “It’s been a tricky balance, but we have really tried to make it as painless for people as possible.”
The Monhegan Museum plans to apply for grants to replace lost income and to appeal to donors and members for support.
For his part, Boynton plans to wait it out. He said hunkering down is, after all, what Monhegan’s handful of year-round residents are accustomed to doing, just not during the summer.