BROOKS, Maine — Since the pandemic began, the Marsh River Cooperative here has been busier than ever — its local produce and organic meats a draw for people who feel safer shopping in a small, local grocery store.
But in the days since the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention announced there was a COVID-19 outbreak connected to the Brooks Pentecostal Church and its affiliated school, Lighthouse Christian Academy, business has slowed down considerably, according to Matthew McKillop, the co-op’s manager.
“Brooks is considered a safer, lower-population area,” he said Wednesday. “I’m a little concerned that’s changed, based on the events of the last couple of weeks. I hope it’s temporary.”
The outbreak likely began on the weekend of Oct. 2, when between 100 and 150 people gathered for an indoor fellowship service at the church, according to the Maine CDC. Masks were available but not routinely used during the rally, Maine CDC Director Nirav Shah has said.
By Wednesday afternoon, the Maine CDC had connected 46 cases of COVID-19 to the outbreak, with three people hospitalized.
READ MORE ON THE BROOKS OUTBREAK
Three positive cases linked to the outbreak have been identified in three Waldo County public schools, according to the Maine CDC — the Captain Albert W. Stevens School in Belfast, the Ames Elementary School in Searsmont and Mount View Elementary School in Thorndike. A probable positive case at Troy A. Howard Middle School in Belfast was found to be negative.
An employee at Bayview Manor, a residential care facility in Searsport, also tested positive. The facility has tested all staff and residents with no additional positive cases detected, the Maine CDC said.
Waldo County residents are hoping the Brooks outbreak will not follow the same trajectory as another high-profile Maine outbreak — the Katahdin-area wedding on Aug. 7, which by the end of September had led to eight deaths and at least 177 cases.
But McKillop said he wasn’t surprised by the latest outbreak in rural Waldo County, which has seen a relatively low number of COVID-19 cases until recently. Lots of people in Waldo County have said it’s felt like a place where following CDC guidelines is optional.
“To be honest, I’ve been expecting this,” McKillop said.“Maybe not so close to home.”
Mark Bailey (right) who works at Gibbs Family Hardware in Brooks said he has noticed that more locals have been wearing face coverings since the outbreak began. Local institutions, such as the Marsh River Co-op (left top and bottom) are more strictly enforcing face covering requirements and limiting crowd sizes. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN
But that’s where it surfaced. The church is less than a mile away from the co-op, a little store in a little town that nevertheless has a big personality.
It’s the kind of place, McKillop said, that is a crossroads for recently arrived homesteaders, off-the-grid farmers and long-time generational Mainers. Pickup trucks with gun racks park next to Subarus and hybrids in the parking lot of the local general store, Wentworth Family Grocery.
That dichotomy is a melting pot for political and social ideologies and makes life interesting.
“One year, the Fourth of July parade was led by the Maine Militia,” McKillop said. “The float behind them was a peace drum.”
That’s “Brooks in a nutshell,” he said.
But as more people there become infected, neighbors are divided on how the community should respond to the outbreak. The philosophical differences suddenly aren’t just about parades — the way that neighbors come together right now in rural areas could ultimately be a matter of life and death.
And in a way, Brooks underscores the broader divide between many Americans over the pandemic. It’s visible on social media and in political discourse, but it’s also apparent in the data, which shows the virus has largely migrated from urban centers to sparsely populated areas that have been slower to adopt CDC guidelines because many there believe their risks are low.
While some establishments in Brooks, including the co-op, are now making it clear that masks are mandatory, others are not.
And even at the co-op, the recent transition to a mandatory mask policy has not been smooth, McKillop said. Previously, its board of directors and staff had strongly encouraged — but not enforced — the governor’s mask mandate, in part because some customers adamantly disagreed with it.
But winter is coming, and it will be harder to keep the small store well ventilated. So the board decided two weeks ago to get tougher on enforcement. Some have pushed back, he said, although he estimated at least 90 percent of customers have not.
“We’re just trying to do business, stay afloat and keep everybody safe,” he said. “That’s all we want to do. It’s a tall order — and this week has not been pleasant.”
Across the street and down a block from the co-op, the mood was different at Gibbs Family Hardware. Mark Bailey, a sales associate there, said that he’s taking the outbreak in stride and tries to keep an even keel.
“I try to stay somewhere in the happy medium,” he said.
While the store posts signs that customers should wear masks and keep a distance from each other, several who entered Wednesday did not. Those included Camille Fields, a homesteader from Thorndike who had stopped by with her two boys to buy some supplies to make rocket stoves. She disputes the mainstream science that has concluded that wearing masks minimize the risk and spread of infection.
“I do feel [masks] make people sicker,” she said, adding that she didn’t know that much about the church outbreak. “I feel very strong. I take care of my immune system.”
Bailey said he has noticed that more local folks have been wearing face coverings since the outbreak began, and that business has slowed a bit at the hardware store, too.
Still, he believes the town will get through it.
“This is what happens when you live in a petri dish,” he said. “I’m not too worried, myself. It’s just one of those things.”