It is hard to quantify how much the pandemic has changed life for Mainers, and we probably won’t have a full understanding until well after it’s become a terrible memory. It’s hard to know what things we find ourselves doing now that we’ll keep doing once the pandemic is over.
But there are some that are likely to stick around, be they fundamental changes in the way we access health care, or the ways in which we patronize local businesses. Here are our best predictions for some of the pandemic changes that likely will become everyday facts of life for Maine, even after the average person is no longer tracking daily case counts and vaccine doses.
New alcohol rules
One of the rules that was actually relaxed during the pandemic was one that barred restaurants from offering takeout alcohol alongside food orders. Gov. Janet Mills signed an order in March that allowed restaurants to offer takeout beer and wine alongside food, in an effort to help them boost sales during those challenging first few months of the pandemic, when indoor dining was not allowed. The state Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages and Lottery Operations later extended that new provision to cocktails.
The order has been a big hit statewide among restaurateurs and diners alike, and there is currently legislation pending to extend alcohol-to-go. Given that, thus far, no major problems have been associated with the change, it seems that takeout alcohol may be here to stay.
Increased outdoor dining
Alongside the relaxing of takeout alcohol rules, municipalities across the state also stepped up measures to allow restaurants to offer outdoor dining more easily, including allowing them to set up extra seating in municipal parking spaces, and closing down streets in downtown areas to expand seating into roadways.
In downtown Bangor, customers and restaurant owners overall seemed to like some of the changes, including short-term parking spots for food pickup and extra seating in parking spots, though opinions were divided over the closure of Broad Street to vehicle traffic. In Rockland, which tried closing its Main Street to vehicle traffic, city officials are deciding on which pandemic-inspired changes to carry into this year after a rollout that caused some confusion. And in Portland, the closure of Exchange Street in the Old Port to vehicle traffic won’t continue this year.
No-contact sales and delivery
If they weren’t already doing it before the pandemic, Maine retailers and restaurants quickly began to adopt no-contact sales as soon as COVID-19 arrived, including curbside pickup, online ordering and delivery options.
While major retailers such as Hannaford, Target and Walmart were already offering grocery pickup, and some chains and large local restaurants already had takeout and delivery infrastructure, many small businesses had to scramble to adopt the technology needed to make such things happen. Suddenly, restaurants were hurrying to connect with apps including DoorDash, GrubHub and Maine-based CarHop to offer delivery, while retailers hastily put together online stores so they could more easily sell their products.
The pandemic also laid bare some of the ways in which brick-and-mortar retailers in Maine are struggling. While many local retailers are small and unique enough to remain nimble and competitive in the face of huge societal changes, large national retail chains face a daunting future, as people continue to choose to shop online instead of in person. In Bangor and other retail-heavy Maine cities, slumping sales over the past year are likely to reduce businesses’ share of the municipal property tax burden. Will such shifts become permanent due to the pandemic?
More drive-in theater visits
Movie theaters across the state were closed for months during the early days of the pandemic, and while they were allowed to reopen last summer, they still must maintain limited, socially distant seating — and many opted to close again after the holidays, until the pandemic is better under control and there are more new movies to show.
Meanwhile, the wide array of streaming service options means that countless movies can be watched from home, on increasingly affordable and high-quality TVs and sound systems. The movie industry has responded by releasing everything from blockbusters to Oscar bait straight to streaming, rather than only in theaters initially. Though movie theaters aren’t going away anytime soon, it does mean that we are likely to see people continue to prefer to watch movies at home.
The pandemic also helped to bring back an unexpected blast from the past: drive-in movie theaters. Such theaters in Bangor, Saco and Westbrook all had banner years, thanks to their inherently socially distant seating. While it remains to be seen if drive-ins remain popular once the pandemic subsides, the unique experience they provide may be one that movie lovers prefer to keep around.
Are snow days a thing of the past?
Aside from massive snow events that block roads and cause power outages, the rise of virtual schooling during the pandemic may have put snow days on the path to extinction. With the infrastructure to allow students to attend class from home now commonplace, school districts and colleges may no longer need to cancel classes outright due to inclement weather, opting instead to simply go online for the day. Will tomorrow’s students never know the joy of an unexpected day off, to go sledding and watch TV and ignore homework?
One snag in a potential reduction in snow days may be that if classes are held remotely on a snowy day, a school district still has to offer takeout lunches to students, who — along with the employees who have to prepare the food — may be faced with no way to get to school to get that lunch.
Another snag is snow days’ enduring popularity. After the Bangor School Department said in October that it would have remote learning days rather than shut down entirely for inclement weather, parents objected, and the city added back two full-fledged snow days to the calendar.
One thing that’s definitely sticking around from the pandemic are the tough decisions to be made by school districts when it comes to dealing with in-person versus remote schooling.
Voting early or by mail
Last year’s election was historic for many reasons. But one of those reasons that made it stand out — the staggering number of people who voted early or by mail instead of at the polls on Election Day — is likely to continue. Of the more than 828,000 Mainers who voted in the 2020 election (the highest turnout in nearly a century), more than half voted early or by mail, up from just one-third of voters in 2016.
The pandemic clearly spurred many Mainers to forgo in-person voting, and while those numbers could drop in the next general election, it is just as likely that many people will continue to prefer to fill out their ballots ahead of Election Day. Maine’s secretary of state, Shenna Bellows, supports the idea of automatically sending absentee ballots to all voters who request them, and a bill was introduced in the Maine House in early February to do just that.
The rise of telehealth
When the pandemic struck, almost overnight, many routine doctor’s appointments went virtual. Telehealth — previously a niche part of the services offered by Maine health care providers — exploded in popularity last year, with Northern Light Health reporting more than 86,000 telehealth visits across its 10-hospital network in the third quarter of 2020, up from just 3,200 in the first three months of the year. Medicare also expanded access to telehealth by beginning to reimburse providers for telehealth visits.
As with many things that can be done virtually, don’t expect in-person doctor visits to go away. But, if given the option to have a routine, non-emergency check-in with your doctor at home versus traveling to the office, what might you choose? That said, widespread access to quality high-speed internet in rural Maine, and access to functioning tablets, laptops and phones, remain roadblocks for even more widespread adoption of telehealth in the state.