April 01, 2020
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Maine snowbirds feeling stuck down south, thanks to coronavirus

Courtesy of Meg Haskell
Courtesy of Meg Haskell
Douglas Coffin and Meg Haskell were traveling south in a 1982 Volkswagen pop-up camper when the coronavirus began to close America down.

As of noon Wednesday, March 18, 30 Maine residents have been confirmed positive and 12 others are presumed positive for the coronavirus, according to the state. Click here for the latest coronavirus news, which the BDN has made free for the public. You can support this mission by purchasing a digital subscription.

BELFAST, Maine — Every winter, lots of Mainers head south to ride out the coldest months in warmer climes. This year, though, a gloom has been cast over their sunny days by the novel coronavirus, which has upheaved plans and caused some snowbirds to wonder when they will be able to make it home.

Lianne and Walt Harris, of Belfast, spend November to May in Tampa, Florida. They like it there, — and they have family there — but their real lives are located 1,500 miles north, they said.

The many unknowns of the coronavirus, and the ever-tightening controls to try to stop its spread, will likely mean that they can’t leave as soon as they want.

They’re not complaining — but it’s hard to be away from home during a time of crisis, they said.

“We’re feeling like we can’t get back,” Walt Harris said. “It’s frustrating and depressing to think we can’t pack up and go back on the first of May.”

The highly contagious virus appears to spread in similar ways to influenza and the common cold. In order to try and slow its progress, authorities are encouraging people to stay home and practice “social distancing.” On Monday, the White House issued guidelines for the next two weeks that urge Americans to avoid gathering in groups of more than 10 people, to avoid discretionary travel, shopping trips, social visits and going to restaurants and bars.

[Interactive map: The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in each state]

All that can mean that snowbirds may think twice about traveling back home. The Harrises miss their friends and family up north, but as of now, do not feel comfortable about the three-day drive — and especially all the stops they would need to make while on the road.

“Starting now, we count the days until we can go back,” Lianne Harris said. “We’re lucky. We’re healthy. But no matter what, with the closing up and down the coast, throughout the United States, it will make it so that Mainers will not be able to get home as early as they want.”

The 75-year-olds know their age makes them more vulnerable to the disease caused by the virus, and so they are being extra cautious about their traveling decisions.

People older than 60, and especially older than 80, as well as people with serious, chronic underlying health conditions, are very vulnerable to complications from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

“We have to be vigilant,” Lianne Harris said.

About two hours south, in Cape Coral, Florida, Shelley Gilman of Old Town and David Griffin of Orono are having a very different winter break than the one they envisioned. The couple rented a house for six weeks, and were looking forward to hosting many of their relatives who live in Maine and elsewhere in New England.

But then the virus came and changed everything.

“Everybody canceled,” Gilman, a part-time obstetrics nurse at Northern Light – Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, said. “It’s not miserable, but it is a little scary, being away from family.”

Instead of taking day trips and enjoying convivial restaurant meals with family, they are spending a lot of time at their rental house, cooking and venturing out to grocery stores that have been nearly wiped out by anxious shoppers.

“I think we’re facing all the same things in Maine. Things are all starting to close at the same time,” Gilman said, adding that when she gets back, she’s not sure what to expect at the hospital. “There’s quite an unknown world out there.”

Mainers Meg Haskell and Douglas Coffin, of Stockton Springs, are seeing a different part of the Gulf of Mexico — and in a different way. They have been on the road for about two weeks in a new-to-them 1982 Volkswagen Westfalia pop-up camper they’ve tentatively dubbed “Bluebird” after the “Bert and I” story from Maine humorist Marshall Dodge.

It’s been a longstanding dream to wander through the country, staying at campgrounds and state parks, among other places. New Orleans has been a top destination, but when they arrived a couple of days ago, they found a city on the verge of battening down its hatches against an invisible enemy.

“In the last few days, every conversation now starts with a reference to the situation,” Haskell said, adding that they are staying at an Airbnb in a neighborhood called Bayou St. John. “When we landed, the host met us on the porch, and said something like, ‘Welcome to virus central’ and said they had just cleaned the place’”

Haskell, a former Bangor Daily News reporter in her 60s, and Coffin, in his 70s, know they also are in a demographic that has been urged to take extra care. They want to be careful but not paranoid, they said, and do not right now want to retreat from their vacation..

“It doesn’t feel like that right now,” Coffin said. “I think people that are hunkered down in their living rooms are bored. We’re not bored.”

They did stock up on provisions a couple of campsites ago, and now have about a week’s worth of non-perishable food with them. They also bought disinfectant and have been using it, and are hoping that the things they want to see and the places they want to go will not all close down.

“We feel really lucky that we had all our plans in place and were able to take off before the sky fell,” Haskell said. “This is exactly where we need to be. And if we need to come back early, we will.”

Watch: What older adults need to know about COVID-19

 


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