This story is part of the Bangor Daily News’ road trip across the state one year into the COVID-19 pandemic. Read an overview of the project here.

The Bankery in downtown Skowhegan has been closed for almost a year now, only offering takeout orders customers can pick up from a table barricading the bakery’s front door. Employees wear masks while preparing food and drinks even though the store is closed to customers, and that is how it will continue to operate for at least a few more months, according to co-owner Matthew Dubois.

“Our lobby size doesn’t accommodate very many patrons at one time so we decided that, based on our size and the amount of employees that we had, it made more sense to remain contactless,” Dubois said. “Also, it helped us regulate the number of people inside our lobby, as well as whether or not they’re wearing a mask, so that was one less thing to worry about.”

The Bankery is one of few downtown Skowhegan businesses that has remained open for contactless pickup only as the COVID-19 pandemic has continued, rather than open its doors to customers. 

Somerset County saw its share of devastation from the coronavirus pandemic last summer, as a Madison nursing home became the site of an outbreak tied to the well known Aug. 7 superspreader wedding in the Katahdin region. Seven of its residents died.

Clockwise from left: Nick Mathews, a mail carrier in Newport, walks his route on Feb. 24; A Bankery employee makes a coffee drink inside the cake and pastry shop; Daniel Barker, director of snow surfaces at Sugarloaf, grooms trails at the Skowhegan’s State Fairgrounds for the town’s Winterfest; Matthew Dubois, co-owner of The Bankery in Skowhegan, discusses impacts the COVID-19 pandemic has had on his small business and the community; Gas stations are busy with customers in Newport. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

Then, in the fall, Somerset County had one of the highest rates of new cases in the state ahead of a second-wave surge in cases throughout the state that died down only recently. As with much of the virus’ spread during the second wave, the spike in Somerset County cases couldn’t be tied to a single large outbreak.

Still, residents of the rural county do not consider it hard-hit by COVID-19. On the afternoon of Feb. 24, downtown Skowhegan was largely empty, but dozens of people had flocked to the area the previous weekend for the start of Somerset SnowFest, a weeklong winter sporting event hosted by Main Street Skowhegan. 

“Our restaurants are seeing fewer people, we’ve had bars that can’t open, and then in general people are nervous about COVID and not wanting to necessarily get out,” said Kristina Cannon, Main Street’s executive director. “So we’re hoping through this weeklong festival of outdoor activities we can bring some people into some of our businesses safely, of course, and spur some economic activity.”

The Skowhegan area has been on the receiving end of heightened interest in outdoor activities during the pandemic, Cannon said. She first noticed the interest growing last summer. This year, SnowFest, with its week of outdoor events, proved a popular draw.

“Instead of hoping that people show up at programs, we’re turning people away, because we can’t accommodate the numbers,” she said. “This is a good problem to have, I guess, because we’re able to accommodate people’s need to get out and do something and to see other people.”

While Skowhegan was a mixed bag in terms of people walking down the street wearing masks, almost no one out and about in Newport wore a face covering. 

“I see fewer masks,” said Nick Mathews, a postal carrier. Since the pandemic, he mostly delivers mail in Newport instead of traveling across the state.

Downtown Skowhegan is pictured on Feb. 24. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

Late in the afternoon on Feb. 24, Mathews speed-walked to 25 neighboring homes on High Street in about 20 minutes. He’s busier than ever delivering mail and packages, but it’s an isolating experience, he said as he walked door to door.

“A lot of us carriers get to know each other from different offices,” he said. “Now we don’t get to see each other very much. It’s kind of made the job quieter.”

Khloe McEachirn, who works at the Dunkin’ drive-thru off Exit 157 from I-95, said she wished more people wore masks when they pulled up to the drive-thru window.

McEachirn volunteers at a hospital and said she was scheduled to receive her first dose of coronavirus vaccine in early March. That, combined with the strict masking and social distancing protocols she and her co-workers follow, makes her feel safe at work.

“At the beginning, there was a lot of pushback on wearing masks, which is obviously now more accepted,” she said. “But people should wear masks to the drive-thru. Not many people do that.”