York School Superintendent Lou Goscinski sits in an empty gymnasium at the York Village Elementary School on Monday. Goscinski's schools have once again gone virtual, for the time being. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

York’s schools returned to remote learning on Tuesday as pandemic-related student and staff absences mounted and follow-up testing became too unmanageable.

The decision by Superintendent Lou Goscinski to operate remotely for one week came as York County became a hotspot for the virus, with a 20 percent rate of positive tests, and as the school district documented 90 cases in the first week of the new year. The absentee rate at York High School caused state health officials to give it outbreak status.

The spreading virus and resulting staff shortages also put York’s parks and recreation activities on hold last week and caused restaurants, including the Central Restaurant & Bar, to close early for the season in mid-December and others — including Lunchbox Louie’s — to close permanently.

The beach town — which has about 12,500 residents in the winter and more than quadruple that in the summer — is a study in how the fast-spreading virus is leading to shutdowns even without state mandates in effect and forcing difficult decisions onto local officials and businesspeople. The rise of the super-contagious omicron variant is likely to lead more Maine cities and towns down the same path in the coming weeks.

“There are more challenges this year, with decision-making down to the local level,” Goscinski said. “It’s frustrating. We feel like we’re out there alone.”

Goscinski hasn’t had much pushback from parents on the shift to remote learning, but taking on more of the onus is a lot of pressure on top of dealing with the anxiety and the depression the virus is causing to staff, he said.

York never removed its own state of emergency when Maine did last year. Town Manager Stephen Burns said that so far, the town is able to work with the recommendations given by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, although they are not extensive.

It is applying what it learned from actions it took early on in the pandemic, when it closed beaches because people eager to get outdoors crowded them.

Burns said it has figured out better ways to institute spacing requirements between beachgoers.

“Early in the pandemic we were all fearful and uninformed,” he said. “At some point you just take the information you have, make the decisions and live with the consequences.”

Unlike Portland and Brunswick, which have instituted indoor mask mandates in public areas, York is not following suit, although municipal employees need to wear masks at work. Burns said the controversial mask mandates should be handled by the state, and Maine counties and towns “need to rely on people’s good judgment” to remain safe.

Cars stream down York Street in York on Monday. Like several other towns in Maine, York’s schools have once again gone virtual-only. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

The town has an informal group, including Goscinski, town officials and clergy, who meet monthly to talk about how to handle COVID-19. Nicole Pestana, the town’s acting emergency management director, heads the group and said they are not trying to tell businesses what to do, but looking at how to limit spread and protect people.

At Anthony’s Food Shop, owner Mark Graziano, has reinstated the mask mandate for his staff of 70 employees, most of whom are vaccinated, after relaxing it over the summer. Customers of the bakery, market, pizza parlor and gas station do not need to wear masks.

“We’re operating more normally now,” he said.

So far he has not had to close the food shop because of COVID-19, but that’s not the case with Lunchbox Louie’s, another business he owned. That restaurant closed for good last year because there wasn’t enough staff to keep it open and social distancing mandates had severely limited seating.

He doesn’t expect that to be a problem at Anthony’s because he has enough staff and multiple businesses under one roof.

“If we had three or four cooks out, we might have to shut down that part of the business, but the gas station and other parts would stay open,” Graziano said.

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