Sep. 28—Acadia National Park is on pace to get a record number of visitors this year as Maine heads into its busy fall foliage season.
But park operations could be disrupted as soon as Friday if Congress doesn't break an impasse on a budget resolution that's needed to keep federal funding flowing after midnight Thursday.
While Acadia is one of the state's largest tourist draws, it also is among the first places in Maine affected when the federal government shuts down for lack of funding. And a full or partial closure of the park would likely have a negative ripple effect on state and local economies.
Other public impacts of a federal shutdown in Maine would be less immediate. Most federally funded services would continue for a period of time because the funding has already been passed along to state and local agencies that provide assistance for housing or heating or other services. A prolonged shutdown, on the other hand, could have broader impacts, including on the economy.
The most recent and longest federal shutdown in U.S. history, 35 days, lasted from Dec. 22, 2018 to Jan. 25, 2019. One fallout of that shutdown was a 13 percent decline in home sales in Maine during January of 2019, much of that attributed to overall economic uncertainty triggered by a shuttered federal government.
It's not yet clear how Acadia National Park would be affected if a shutdown takes place.
"At this point in time, park operations continue as normal. If something changes we will most likely issue a press release," Christie Anastasia, Acadia National Park spokeswoman, said in an email Tuesday. She did not answer questions about how the park might be affected Friday if Congress doesn't reach a deal, and it wasn't clear if the park service has prepared contingency plans.
The park has been closed or partially closed twice because of budget gridlock in Congress over the last 10 years. In 2013, Acadia was closed entirely, the gates shut and entrances barricaded. But, in 2018 the park was only partially closed. The public could still access the park but restrooms and other facilities were unavailable as the park furloughed 79 of its 94 employees.
The park draws nearly 3.5 million of the state's roughly 39 million tourism visits each year and was expected to top 4 million visits this year after a record breaking summer. And this weekend is expected to be a busy one at the park.
The 12th annual Dark Sky Festival begins Wednesday and includes a total of 23 events held over five days in Acadia National Park on Mount Desert Island, at the Schoodic Institute in Winter Harbor and in Castine. The festival's website offers no indication that events might be curtailed due to a possible government shutdown.
The park's closure would lead to some cancellations of visits to the area, but most pre-booked group tours would still come to Maine and the region, said Alison Sucy, chief operating officer and director of government affairs at the Maine Tourism Association.
Tourists are still going to come to peep at Maine's changing leaves and its landscapes and seascapes even if they can't enter the park, Sucy said.
"Certainly a park closure would impact the experience visitors are able to have," Sucy said," but Mt. Desert Island has a lot to offer outside of Acadia."
For some Maine residents, especially those who depend on their monthly Social Security benefits to pay the bills, the threat of federal government shutdown can be frightening. Federal law requires those payments to continue, however. Applications for new benefits would likely be delayed, depending on how long a shutdown lasts. The issuance of new Social Security cards would also be on hold during any shutdown.
Many essential federal workers, including those who treat the medical needs of Maine's veterans at Veterans Administration facilities around the state including the VA's primary hospital at Togus would remain on the job.
U.S. Postal Service workers would also remain on the job as would any federal law enforcement agents working in Maine. Only a small portion of the estimated 15,000 federal workers in Maine would be furloughed and they would see any wages lost to the shutdown made up in retroactive payments once the government reopens.
Key federal programs, including those that provide heating and rent assistance to low-income Mainers, would continue unabated for now, said Denise Lord, the senior director for strategic initiatives at the Maine Housing Authority.
The authority is the agency that administers federal grant funding for programs like the Low Income Heating Assistance Program as well as federal COVID-19 relief funding aimed at helping tenants facing economic hardship pay their rent.
"There won't be an immediate impact," Lord said. "We have been granted the funding to deliver those programs, so there shouldn't be an interruption of services for any of our programs."
The City of Portland would also not see any immediate impacts from a federal government shutdown as any direct grants from the federal government for COVID-19 pandemic relief were already in hand, according to Jessica Grondin, the city's director of communications and digital services.
Grondin added that other federal grants, including those for Housing and Urban Development and Community Development Block Grant programs, were also already approved and in the pipeline.
State government would also continue to function, and it also has already received from the federal government the bulk of the state's share of funding associated with federal COVID-19 relief efforts.
Kelsey Goldsmith, the director of communications for the state's Department of Administration and Financial Services, said state government had a long-standing framework it uses any time there is a possibility of a federal government shutdown.
That process involves identifying programs, positions, contracts and grants that may be impacted, Goldsmith said. That process was ongoing Tuesday.
"While we are undertaking this work in preparation, we hope it is ultimately not necessary because Congress will do what is right," Goldsmith wrote in an email message. "We strongly urge Congress to keep the government open and to avoid defaulting on our debt."
Robert Long, a spokesman for the Maine Center for Disease Control, said that agency was also working to assess how it may be impacted.
"We're undertaking the process of identifying programs and services that could be affected by a federal government shutdown in order to limit the potential impact, but remain focused on the pandemic response and protecting the health of Maine people," Long wrote in an email.
Staff Writer Deirdre Fleming contributed to this story.