UNITY, Maine — Most Wednesday mornings, the delicious smell of freshly made doughnuts entices crowds of people to the Amish-run Community Market in Unity.
But as with so many facets of life in Maine, doughnut day has been put on indefinite hold. Right next to a display of yellow snow shovels on the store’s wide, inviting front porch, owner Lewis Brenneman has propped up a big cardboard sign hand-printed with black marker.
“Attention: we are not making Donuts due to COVID-19. We plan to continue as soon as things settle down,” the sign reads.
It’s not the only change that the global coronavirus pandemic has brought about, even in this unworldly general store on the side of the rural Thorndike Road. Although the Amish tend to eschew most aspects of the modern world, this is one that can’t be ignored or avoided. Brenneman, 33, has taken to wearing black plastic gloves as he moves through his old-fashioned store, and has placed both a Plexiglas barrier and a plastic table in front of the checkout counter so that there’s a little more breathing room between him and his customers.
As well, even though the number of customers who are coming through the doors has gone down, sales have been steady as folks stock up on staples such as eggs, flour and spices. Brenneman said he gets his information about the pandemic from those customers, as well as some newspapers and by calling a phone number to listen to SRN News, a syndicated Christian political talk and music radio network.
“I see a lot of fear and panic out there, from people really worried about what’s going to happen,” he said, adding that he’s not too worried about his own health because he’s relatively young and healthy. “To me, it doesn’t look like it will kill me. But I see myself as having responsibility to my customers, my community and my family, of course.”
Generally, Brenneman and the other Amish folks who live in the community — there were about 20 families living in the Waldo County group five years ago — tend to keep to themselves a fair amount anyway. In normal times, they go to their own church and their children attend their own school, which lasts through the eighth grade.
But the constantly-evolving guidelines from the state about what Mainers should do to try to “flatten the curve” of the disease have affected the Amish community, too.
Church services in the community have mostly been suspended, and while Brenneman is following the previously issued guideline about limiting gatherings of 10 or more people, it has been challenging. The Amish don’t use Zoom, or other technological advances that other Mainers have been using to stay in touch with friends, family and co-workers during this difficult time.
“That’s the one thing that’s a little tough for us,” he said. “We are used to more face-to-face … We do have telephones, but we can’t do live-streaming.”
Just one day after Gov. Janet Mills ordered Mainers to stay home through April except to shop for necessities or go to essential jobs, Brenneman said he was thinking about how his store might change. He made the decision to stop making doughnuts in a bid to keep crowds away, and although he is committed to serving customers with their essential needs, it’s possible he will make other changes to his business model.
“I am willing and wanting to conform the best I can to the regulations that are out and coming,” he said.
If someone in the Waldo County Amish community did fall ill from COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, they would not shun modern medicine, he said. The religion doesn’t keep its adherents from seeking care from doctors, dentists and medical specialists.
“We certainly use the medical world,” Brenneman said. “If I have a broken leg, I don’t stay home and try to fix it with herbs.”
But people in the Waldo County Amish community most likely don’t have typical health insurance. They have also opted out of federal safety net programs such as Social Security and Medicare. Instead, they rely on themselves and each other to pay for care. According to a 2013 report from NBC news, most Amish in the country fund their health care through a system that merges church aid, benefit auctions and negotiated discounts with local hospitals.
“We believe in taking care of each other and our older people,” Brenneman said.
He knows that his job, which entails interacting with the public, could pose unusual dangers right now. Store workers are on the front lines of the pandemic, and this week the supermarket chain Hannaford reported that two store associates in Scarborough and Oxford have tested positive for COVID-19. Brennaman, who doesn’t have a smartphone, computer, television or radio, may not have the latest numbers of the confirmed positives at the front of his mind, but he’s certainly aware of what’s happening.
“There is a sense of danger that I’m potentially putting myself in,” he said.
As customers came and went from his store, they often stopped to chat for a minute or two.
“Stay healthy,” one man said to Brenneman as he paid for his items.
“Yes, you as well,” the store owner responded.
After the shopper left, Brenneman said that people seem to have been a bit friendlier since the pandemic began.
“It’s kind of funny to keep social distance, but engage in conversation,” he said.
Even though some elements of what is happening right now are scary, Brenneman said that he and his wife, who have a young son, would not describe themselves as afraid.
“There’s certainly a sense of what’s going to happen, and there’s a lot of unknowns out there,” he said. “I don’t think we need to fear. We do trust in God and God will take care of us. And if we’re ready to die, we know where we’re going.”
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