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Two-hundred years ago, Maine had the good sense to break away from Massachusetts and become its own state. And for generations, the folksy habit of labeling outsiders as “from away” has almost been part of Maine’s DNA.
In normal times, that tradition is counterproductive and feeds an occasionally charming but ultimately unhelpful sense of who can claim to be a Mainer. During the coronavirus pandemic, that view of outsiders seems like it could morph into something much more dangerous.
Reports of people from current COVID-19 hotspots such as New York traveling to less-populated areas like Maine have caused a stir. Some of the stories have been ugly, like the state and national headlines about armed locals on Vinalhaven reportedly cutting down a tree to force out-of-state visitors to quarantine in their residence.
Mainers, despite some bluster about folks from other states, are generally welcoming people. They’re also practical. The state can and must continue to be both during this pandemic.
It was practical for Gov. Janet Mills to issue an April 3 executive order requiring travelers arriving from out-of-state, including Mainers who had traveled to other places, to self quarantine for 14 days. The order also directed people from virus hotspots or those showing symptoms not to travel to Maine. It’s practical to ask seasonal residents to consider potential resource challenges here in Maine, and to stay where they are for now. We all should be staying put, when possible.
But it’s also important how that message is delivered, and enforced. Importantly, Mills didn’t vilify nonresidents when she announced the order.
“I ask Maine people not to make assumptions about others, and we welcome the cooperation of other visitors and returning residents in quarantining themselves and keeping us all safe in accordance with this order,” she said at the time. “Let us treat all people in Maine with compassion and kindness. That is how we will get through this.”
Fear and distrust have a very strong pull in times of crisis and uncertainty. Mainers should resist those impulses and focus on the facts, including the facts about nonresidents and the virus.
As of April 9, Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Nirav Shah reported 17 nonresidents had tested positive for COVID-19 in Maine. CDC Spokesman Robert Long told the BDN that the number of nonresidents who test positive is not something the agency is tracking daily because labs not run by the state sometimes send those results directly to an individual’s home state, where those results are counted in that state’s overall COVID-19 tally.
“The number is at least 17 and we have no data to suggest that it is significantly higher,” Long said Thursday, when the total number of confirmed cases in the state had risen to nearly 800 (as of Monday, that number was 875). He added anecdotally that many of the nonresident cases are New Hampshire residents who tested positive in Maine because their health care providers are located here.
“We have no evidence of a disproportionate exposure risk linked to people whose primary residences are in other states,” Long said.
While an absence of evidence of such a link does not prove that there isn’t one, it’s important to consider in light of reports, including from the BDN, that could potentially fuel more resentment and distrust toward seasonal residents and others from outside Maine.
“Transmission among household members seems to be the most common way for the virus to spread,” Long added. “So a Maine resident would be more likely to contract the virus from a family member than from someone from away.”
Many are familiar with the enduring “Bert and I” punchline “you can’t get there from here.” As a state, Maine should strive to come out on the other side of this crisis maintaining “the way life should be.” But we can’t get there from here by turning our backs on the people from outside Maine who help bring billions of dollars into our economy, and have generations of memories shared here with us.
We can’t get there from here by vilifying the seasonal homeowners who contribute to our taxbase. We can’t get there from here without the medical workers who come to Maine to help staff our hospitals and long-term care facilities, or the out-of-state utility crews who help restore power. We can’t get there from here by distrusting the summertime neighbors who help quiet communities transform a few months out of the year.
We can get there by working together. But we can’t get there with fear.