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.
Steuben Town Clerk Julie Ginn and her deputy, Joy Robinson, sat at their desks in the town office, unmasked, on a quiet Wednesday afternoon in early March. As people walked in, Ginn put her mask on and walked to the window to greet them.
The Washington County town set itself apart in late December when its selectmen passed a resolution on Dec. 30, 2020, objecting to Gov. Janet Mills’ recently tightened face covering requirement that eliminated most exemptions from wearing masks in public. While such anti-mask resolutions have made waves in Maine, few governments have actually passed them. The resolution has made Steuben an outlier in the eyes of some residents from surrounding towns of Gouldsboro and Winter Harbor.
The Steuben town office still has a sign on its front door saying masks are required, but Ginn said it’s only up because the town posted it last June when the statewide mask mandate was more lenient. Masking is not enforced inside the building, Ginn said. Town employees socially distance, wear face coverings and clean frequently used surfaces, but do not deny service to anyone who walks in without a face covering.
“The resolution is a cease-and-desist to the governor saying that your mask mandate doesn’t fit everyone and, basically, we want you to rethink what you’ve done,” Ginn said. “But in no way does it say that Steuben will no longer wear masks.”
The resolution was drafted by state Rep. Billy Bob Faukingham, R-Winter Harbor, in response to concerns that the strengthened mask requirement made no exemptions for people with disabilities.
In neighboring Gouldsboro, businesses have put up extra signs warning people against entering their establishments without masks to differentiate themselves from Steuben, according to Brent and Cheryl Hurd, the new owners of Anderson Marine and Hardware on U.S. Route 1.
“We still have a few communities down this way like Steuben that don’t want to abide by those rules. They have caused some major issues,” Brent Hurd said. “They are basically sectioning themselves off from the rest of the state.”
The Hurds wear masks even when their store, a decades-old Gouldsboro mainstay, is empty. They purchased the property, which had been empty for about a year, in September 2020 and after a few months of renovations, opened in late November. It has been doing well because of loyal customers from nearby towns, according to Brent Hurd.
“This is what my plans were for retirement. We just did it early,” he said. “People around here will stop by and tell us, ‘We want to support you guys so we’re going to stop here first.’”
Cheryl Hurd also manages vacation rentals in the area, and she’s seen interest in those properties grow as vacationers seek out destinations where they can keep their distance from others and enjoy the outdoors. The 20 rentals she manages around Winter Harbor are already full for the upcoming summer season, she said.
“Last year there was a lull, obviously, because of all the state requirements. People had to cancel and couldn’t come because of not being able to go get into the state,” she said. “But this summer is all booked up for now. I think people are ready to start traveling and going places, especially with the vaccine.”