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It feels like a hundred years ago when, on March 13, I canceled my trip from New York City, where I live, to Carrabassett Valley to meet my mother and some of her siblings who were all born and raised in Veazie. With COVID-19 cases skyrocketing, I decided not to risk exposing my family — particularly as some of them fall into vulnerable categories.
It has saddened me to learn of escalating tensions between full-time residents and seasonal homeowners quarantining in Maine. My mother owns a summer home on Mount Desert Island, and all four of her siblings (and many of their children and grandchildren) live full-time across the state from Portland to Milbridge.
I understand anyone’s fear of contracting COVID-19, but this virus is coming for all of us. Maine already has 519 confirmed cases and fear and resentment of “outsiders” is not going to prevent this virus from rolling through every single county in the United States. Nevertheless, there is a balance between preventive practices and striving for total isolation that, if not carefully navigated, may leave communities everywhere in a weaker position to combat and ultimately recover from COVID-19.
I live in Jackson Heights, Queens, just a stone’s throw from Elmhurst Hospital where the situation has been described as “apocalyptic.” Aside from not wanting to potentially expose my extended family during the early phase of this crisis, I’m motivated to remain in solidarity with New York, the city where I was born and where I weathered 9/11.
Despite this unfortunate animosity brewing toward seasonal residents, everyone everywhere must make responsible choices on a daily basis, traveling only for necessities and avoiding close contact with others.
I’m particularly sympathetic toward the concerns of Maine’s full-time residents during an influx of “outsiders” with respect to the state’s limited access to healthcare. But let’s bear in mind that we are now mobilizing a national response to a global crisis. While my home city is the epicenter, it is also fighting this virus on the front lines.
Not only does New York possess the greatest concentration of medical and scientific talent in the world, we will likely be exporting all that we have learned (and maybe a good number of respirators and other life-saving equipment) once we have moved past the peak of the curve, and hopefully New York City will then take the fight to help slow the curve that will be coming to less densely populated parts of the country later on.
I know Maine will have a part to play in this too, notably with COVID-19 testing developments at the Abbott Lab in Scarborough. We all have much to share, and now is the time to reinforce our relationships, not sew division.
Of course I’m upset by anecdotal reports of visitors traveling to Maine and acting irresponsibly; I’m also troubled by reports of harassment and even violence toward those with out-of-state license plates. Reprehensibility aside, such behaviors will never protect communities from COVID-19 nor help with the economic recovery that we will all desperately need. And on a personal level, it just hurts that my mom, a native Mainer who returned to New York to ride out the storm, now feels afraid to return to her home state with New York plates ever again.
History has taught us — from World War II to 9/11 — that during times of great crisis, we prevail when we stand together as a nation. Now is one of those times when we must stand together (six feet apart!) and strengthen our bonds as we look down the line at our collective long-term recovery, both medically and economically, from this terrible event.
As a life-long New York City resident, Maine forever holds a special place in my heart for its significance to my family, as well as the inspiration of my love and passion for ocean sciences that has set me on my current path in marine conservation. I sincerely hope that we can all move past any strained relationships and embrace a collective response as part of a larger team-effort across our country that will open all of Maine up to the wealth of talent and resources from New York and elsewhere as we battle and recover from this crisis.
And, because I have come to know the character of Mainers over the course of my life — and further like to imagine that working hard and looking out for your community is something that New York City and Maine have in common — I do hope that we all look toward our better angels and help each other in all the ways we can. And I can’t tell you how much I hope, for so many reasons, that the next time I drive up north from New York that the sight of my license plate does not inspire feelings of resentment and division but rather compassion and hope.
John Bohorquez is a Ph.D. candidate at Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences. He is a graduate of Bowdoin College.