BELFAST, Maine — Waldo County has recorded stubbornly high COVID-19 diagnosis numbers recently with no signs of slowing transmission, leading to an increase in mask wearing and unfounded rumors of outbreaks.
The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention hasn’t opened any outbreak investigations associated with the county, and case investigations continue to indicate that the new diagnoses are due to community spread, spokesperson Robert Long said Wednesday.
“Take care and wear a mask when at indoor public spaces,” he said.
As of Tuesday, Waldo County maintained by far the highest rate of new cases in the state after 29 new cases were reported there that day. The county, with a population a bit under 40,000, has seen 146 new cases per 100,000 people over the past week, making it the only county in Maine to be designated as seeing “high” transmission.
It’s one of five Maine counties with high enough rates of COVID-19 transmission that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention recommended universal mask-wearing indoors. The others are Penobscot, Lincoln, Somerset and York.
Waldo County’s high transmission is a disappointment and surprise to some in the county, where nearly 62 percent of people have had at least one vaccine shot. But it also comes at a time when summer visitors are thronging Belfast’s streets, outdoor gatherings, stores and restaurants.
“This whole Waldo County spike, it’s surprising and it’s not. People are here in really large numbers,” Brenda Bonneville, a Belfast city councilor and downtown merchant said Wednesday. “It just makes me feel a little bit disheartened.”
Unlike previous moments in the pandemic, there’s no clear mask mandate from Gov. Janet Mills, which makes it “a little bit blurry,” she said. When people come into Bonneville’s downtown Belfast shop, Ambiance, more often than not they are not wearing masks.
“I have a little spiel. I’m trying to be nice about it. My question is, do you have a mask or do you need one,” she said. “I have a mask for you if you forgot yours. It’s a tiny bit awkward … I’m just going back to what we were doing when COVID first hit.”
In city hall and other city-owned buildings, there is a mandate that people need to wear masks, regardless of their vaccination status. Bonneville said that during a marathon 5 1/2 hour City Council meeting Tuesday night, councilors wore masks.
“We’re just trying to set an example,” she said.
Ryan Otis, the owner of the popular Belfast eatery Rollie’s Bar & Grill, said that the new recommendations haven’t seemed to affect business so far. The restaurant is still operating with fewer than usual seats because it didn’t have the staff to open fully when it was allowed to do so, he said. Staff are also continuing the intensive cleaning practices first implemented last year. While he had planned to add real plates and silverware back to the restaurant’s operations, the county’s rising COVID-19 numbers mean that he’ll continue to use to-go boxes and single-use silverware for the time being.
“We’re doing our best to weather the storm,” Otis said.