A lobsterman and his crew member head out to his fishing boat as the sun rises over Bass Harbor on Mount Desert Island. Credit: Bill Trotter

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Rural counties with a high number of seasonal homes across the United States have seen more cases of COVID-19 on average than those with less seasonal housing, according to an analysis by a researcher at the Carsey School of Public Policy in New Hampshire.

The research suggests that rural scenery has drawn visitors seeking to escape densely populated metropolitan areas, who likely brought the virus with them.

[Our COVID-19 tracker contains the most recent information on Maine cases by county]

But the difference between rural areas with many seasonal homes and those with few appears to be narrowing, as the virus continues to make its way into a greater number of small communities.

Just 10 days ago, the prevalence of COVID-19 in rural counties with high shares of seasonal housing was twice as high as in other rural places, found Jessica Carson, a research assistant professor at the public policy school at the University of New Hampshire.

But the gap has shrunk in the last week as the virus spreads into more rural places. As of Tuesday, the rate of infection in counties with more seasonal homes is about 1.5 times as high as other rural places, Carson said.

“These factors together suggest that this trend may have been specific to earlier phases in the virus’s spread, and that geographic differences in caseload patterning may be dissipating as fewer communities are left untouched,” she said.

Specifically, in the nation’s 199 rural counties where seasonal housing accounts for 25 percent or more of all housing units, average COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people are 1.5 times as high as in other rural counties.

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“This is consistent with anecdotal reports of hot spots in popular vacation locations as visitors, including some who are unknowingly infected, exit urban areas attempting to socially distance at second homes and seasonal rental properties,” Carson wrote.

While her analysis is national, Carson said the trend holds for Maine. Here, Franklin, Hancock, Lincoln, Oxford, Piscataquis and Washington counties are rural and have a high share of seasonal housing.

“The pattern of higher rates in places with high seasonal housing holds true, although the differences are a little smaller [in Maine],” she said.

Carson cautioned that not all seasonal homes are vacation homes. In Washington County, for instance, it’s frequently migrant workers who reside in seasonal housing. And she cautioned against comparing specific Maine counties with rural places nationwide, given differences in testing, reporting and population makeup.

Similarly, Bill Bishop and Tim Marema of The Daily Yonder found in a separate analysis that COVID-19 cases in rural places are concentrated in counties with economies based on tourism and recreation.

Watch: Why the Maine CDC breaks down coronavirus cases by county, not town

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Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda is editor of Maine Focus, a journalism and community engagement initiative by the Bangor Daily News.