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Until further notice, visitors and seasonal residents will no longer be permitted to travel to the island of North Haven in an attempt to protect the community from the spread of the coronavirus.
“The board struggled with this decision, but took this step because it believes the town has extremely limited ability to cope with the pandemic,” according to a statement on the town’s website. “The addition of even a few people could strain those resources to the point where more people would become at risk.”
According to the order, which was passed by the North Haven Select Board on Sunday night, only full-time residents of the island will be permitted to access the island from the mainland.
This is likely the first time an island community in Maine has taken such a measure, according to the Island Institute — an organization that provides support to the islands — and the Maine State Ferry Service, which has served six Maine islands since 1960.
“We don’t believe there has been a situation like this one in the past,” Maine Department of Transportation spokesperson Paul Merrill said.
Despite the novelty of the restrictions, Island Institute President Rob Snyder said how quickly town officials were able to come together to create a plan speaks to the resilience and preparedness of island communities.
“Regardless of what you think of North Haven’s actions, they were able to take action quickly with an eye toward making sure the community is protected,” Snyder said.
North Haven has a year round population of 355 people, though that increases dramatically during the summer. The Maine State Ferry Service offers year round transportation to North Haven from the Rockland ferry terminal.
North Haven is located in Knox County where, as of Monday morning, there was one confirmed case of COVID-19. It’s a male in his 30s, according to the Maine Center of Disease Control. Two cases have also been confirmed in neighboring Lincoln County.
The travel restrictions will also bar anyone who works on North Haven but lives on the mainland from accessing the island.
It is unclear how the travel restrictions will be enforced. Messages left for North Haven’s town manager and the Knox County Sheriff’s Office — which handles law enforcement on the county’s islands — were not immediately returned Monday morning.
The Maine DOT is continuing to operate the Maine State Ferry Service ― which operates the North Haven ferry — with increased cleaning efforts aboard each ferry in an attempt to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
In response to a question asking how North Haven’s travel restrictions will be implemented, Merrill said the ferry service “is not a law enforcement agency.”
On neighboring Vinalhaven, Town Manager Andrew Dorr said officials are monitoring the situation on a daily basis but have not imposed any travel restrictions. Dorr said town officials are updating the town’s website frequently to provide information about town actions and resources to its residents.
“The reality is the island communities that we live on are not as disconnected as we think,” Dorr said.
On Islesboro, an island community located in Waldo County, town officials are working to set up a meeting — which could happen as early as today — to discuss any precautionary measures against the spread of the coronavirus, according to Islesboro Select Board Chair Archibald Gillies.
The travel restrictions imposed by North Haven officials were driven by concerns that the island is not equipped to handle an outbreak of the virus. The North Haven Clinic is the only medical facility on the island and is staffed by a sole nurse practitioner.
In addition to banning certain groups of people from traveling to North Haven, the travel of residents to the mainland has also been restricted for essential purposes, such as getting groceries or receiving medical care.
Snyder said across Maine’s islands, like the rest of the country and world, there is a sense of “tremendous nervousness” towards both the medical and economic uncertainties COVID-19 poses.
With lobster industry seeing a decreased demand due to the coronavirus, one of the islands’ biggest sources of income is being hit. Tourism, another economic driver for island communities, could be hit next if the coronavirus continues to spread into the summer months.
“People are really struggling to make sense of it on the islands, and I think the economic pain would be felt more acutely if this goes on into the summer,” Snyder said.
Watch: Symptoms of the coronavirus disease