This story is part of the Bangor Daily News’ examination of the effects of the coronavirus in Maine, one year after the first case was detected in the state. Read all of our coronavirus coverage here.
In Portland, an arcade bar owner had to shut down his business. In Farmington, two college freshmen who missed out on their high school graduation are now studying on a socially distant, mask-clad campus. And in Fort Kent, a restaurateur hasn’t seen his Canadian friends and family for a year because the U.S.-Canada border has been closed.
To varying degrees and in different ways, it’s been a year of loss for Mainers. The most obvious loss has been the more than 700 Maine people who died from the illness, and the approximately 1,600 Mainers who faced health consequences so severe that they had to be hospitalized. The other kinds of losses are more common — the lost jobs, the lost time with friends and family, the milestones that have passed by without celebration.
Across the state, Mainers have experienced the COVID-19 pandemic in different ways. In some rural communities, the pandemic restrictions were prevalent even when the virus wasn’t. In the state’s biggest cities, thousands of cases were reported and outbreaks became a regular occurrence. Through it all, the loss — whether it was the loss of a relative or the loss of a job — has been a unifying theme regardless of where in Maine you live.
We wanted to capture how different parts of Maine are responding a year after the pandemic started. So we spent four days driving from Kittery to Fort Kent and from Bethel to Milbridge. We stopped in approximately 15 towns of vastly different sizes along the way, from Portland with 66,000 residents to Patten with fewer than 1,000. Every stop and interview was unplanned.
We started in Kittery on Feb. 23 before following U.S. Route 1 up to Portland before cutting across the state to join Route 2 in Bethel. The next day, we followed Route 2 and made five stops before returning to Bangor. We started the northern leg of our trip on March 1, stopping first in Patten before heading up to Fort Kent on Route 11. Afterward, we followed Route 161 to Caribou before returning to U.S. Route 1 to travel to Houlton and return to Bangor. Two days later, we headed to Washington and Hancock counties, making stops in Milbridge, Gouldsboro and Steuben.
After a year of staying mostly in the Bangor area, different approaches to the pandemic were immediately apparent in each place, and they seemed to depend on many variables.
“Maine’s a big state and a lot of things that work in Portland don’t work in Lyman. Some of the things that work in Augusta, you know don’t work up in the northern territory of the state,” said David Aceto, the owner of the Arcadia National Bar in Portland, which has been closed since March 2020 and plans to reopen in a new space when it’s safe. “So that leaves some of the municipalities to kind of figure it out on their own and say what works for them.”
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The crowded grocery stores of Portland have masked, socially distanced lines outside them while people in Patten strolled into a grocery store unmasked. Restaurants in Presque Isle opened for dine-in service months ago while most we saw in Kennebunkport were offering takeout only.
One variable is each place’s direct experience with the virus. Even a year into the pandemic, many smaller towns still have had little direct experience with virus outbreaks and the business and school shutdowns that result.
Another variable is local politics. Signs are just signs, but we were much more likely to see prominent signs warning residents and visitors to take COVID-19 precautions in places that voted for Joe Biden for president. Those signs are almost entirely absent from Aroostook County, with the exception of Houlton, where Market Square lamp posts have large banners cautioning people to wear masks and keep their distance to “keep Houlton safe.”
In the initial months following the first statewide masking order in April 2020, business and restaurant employees noticed reticence to masking. But as the year went on, more seem to have accepted masks as the new way of life.
Now, a key point of disagreement is vaccination.
Out of the 24 people we spoke with across the state, 15 said they believe vaccination is the best way for the state to move forward. Five had already received at least one shot as of early March. Three of them were in Aroostook County, which saw a faster start to vaccinations than other Maine regions. Two people were unsure whether they would opt to take the vaccine, although both were eligible.
Julie Ginn, the town clerk in Steuben, and Karen Saucier, a grocery store manager in Patten, said they didn’t know whether the vaccine’s benefits outweigh its risks.
“It’s a fear of the unknown of the virus. It’s a fear of the unknown of the vaccine,” Ginn said. “And I don’t know which fear is stronger.”
Finally, two people said they were not willing to get vaccinated right away. Gaetan Oakes, a restaurant owner in Fort Kent, said it’s “too soon” to get inoculated, though he might change his mind after he sees results in a couple years.
Todd Wardwell, a business owner in Mexico, didn’t think he needed to be vaccinated.
“I think it’s fine for people that are around people everyday, like doctors and nurses,” he said. “I’m an outdoors guy. I don’t hang around indoors with 50,000 people every day.”
A growing percentage of Mainers are getting vaccinated, and the state has moved up its timeline so that all adults will be eligible in May. But vaccines won’t immediately bring the end to the physical distancing requirements that have reduced capacity at restaurants and stores, and kept students from attending school in person every day.
“I think the real question is, what’s the standard here for us to get to a new level of normal, whatever that might be?” said Sanjeeva Abeyasekera, the owner of Serendib, a Sri Lankan restaurant in Ellsworth. “Give me the goalpost and tell me, ‘This is how we’re going to operate.’ And then we can start thinking and proceeding with those guidelines.”