Burn the Bridges?

COVID-19 adds to complexity of Maine islanders relationship with visitors "from away"

By Johanna Neeson ’20
May 12, 2020

When I was a kid, my father used to tell me that the first thing to do in a zombie apocalypse was to run to an island somewhere. Better yet, run to our island, Spruce Head Island, in South Thomaston, Maine. He told me we’d be safe there—we could just cut the bridge, build fires, and catch fish until the world ended. Now, in the midst of a global pandemic, I’m left wondering if his logic still applies.

To those on many of Maine’s small islands, it does. For us year-rounders, the island is not only our home, but a refuge from traffic, city life, and crowds. Spruce Head, for instance, has a meager year-round population of 200, with the lobstermen heading out on their boats each morning and others driving onto the mainland to work jobs of various types. Even in the summer, when populations can quadruple, Maine island life offers something of an escape from the mainland’s seasonal visitors and congestion. 

When the news of the novel COVID-19 disease broke to the world, Maine citizens were largely unbothered. On the whole, we barely went anywhere before this crisis, and no one in their right mind came here during our severe, winter-like March weather. Why would a pandemic change anything? In fact, the Bangor Daily News deemed Maine “one of the last states” thought to have a case, giving Mainers a false sense of security.

It wasn’t until Maine Governor Janet Mills announced that Maine had its first positive case in Androscoggin County that people seemed to tune into the worsening situation. Within the next few weeks, stay-at-home, emergency declarations, and essential-only business orders took effect. Normal life in Maine came to an unexpected halt.

Still, island residents were the last to worry. Parties and work continued as normal, and stores remained open until the Portland Press Herald, the largest in-state publication, raised alarm with headlines such as: “Out of state plates line Popham beach,” “Wells sets restrictions on short-term rentals, hotels in response to outbreak,” and “Maine’s rural hospitals preparing for surge in coronavirus cases.”

It was then that the islands of Spruce Head, Vinalhaven, North Haven, Peaks Island, Islesboro, and many others began to discuss the possibility of an influx of new arrivals. The annual, summertime flood of out-of-staters was coming much earlier and stronger than predicted.

Many of these people own summer properties on the islands or in other coastal towns and came in the hopes of weathering out the virus on our “safer” shores. But that prompted the question, who is it really safe for? Or, more pressingly, for whom should it be safe?

Locals began to worry about the rush of “the summer people” coming earlier, bringing infection and ICU-bed-filling bodies with them. While Maine is a very popular summer spot, the state is also very sparsely populated compared to many of our metropolitan neighbors, and as a result, has fewer medical staff and vital supplies.

As the situation in Massachusetts, New York, and Connecticut intensified, the newspaper headlines began to take a slightly more accusatory turn: “Massachusetts man who tested positive for coronavirus while in Maine counts himself lucky,” “Southern Maine communities call for out-of-state visitors to quarantine for 2 weeks,” and “Maine scrounges for medical supplies, but little more is expected from feds.”

Maine has a true love-hate relationship with those “from away.” This us-vs-them mentality is not new. The general distrust toward out-of-staters does not stem from the coronavirus but has been worsened by it. Mainers have always cursed the May tide of Massachusetts license plates and sudden traffic on the Wiscasset Bridge, yet the emergence of COVID-19 provided an even more concrete and defensible reason to discriminate against and alienate those from away.

On the other hand, because Maine relies so heavily on those same summer tourists for a large portion of their GDP, with tourism supporting over 16 percent of employment in the state and producing 6.2 billion dollars in revenue, Maine residents have always had to accept sharing their year-long home for the good of the state at large. Now, as the world is quickly descending into self-quarantine, social distancing, and maybe even chaos, Mainers have started to blame those summer renters and visitors for every new virus case and each successive shortage in goods or essential supplies.

Maine islanders have been particularly vocal in their outcry. Headlines and public letters have garnered national attention in the last few weeks as residents and local governments have taken matters into their own hands, some more blatantly than others. The island of Vinalhaven, for instance, with its 1,165 residents, made national news when a group of residents cut down a tree to block road access to a group of “out-of-staters” who had recently returned to the island from elsewhere. Some reports say the visitors were met with guns and had to use a marine radio to call for help. While the sheriff’s office is still investigating, they urged “everyone to be safe and not overreact in this time of uncertainty as it could end poorly,” according to statements to the Bangor Daily News.

Island town offices and local governments are now faced with the choice of how to handle increased tensions, hostility, and fear over the allocation of limited resources. The very first line in an email from the South Thomaston (Spruce Head) Municipal Team to its residents and visitors stated, “Based on the CDC recommendation we urge visitors from out of state to self-quarantine for 14 days before entering buildings considered ‘generally open to the public,’ even if you’re feeling well.” The email was sent out on the 26th of March to assuage a number of complaints and concerns voiced at a recent online town hall meeting.

The email continues: “Seasonal Visitors: if you normally live elsewhere, isolating at home instead of in South Thomaston is safer for the following reasons. …” The wording was kind enough, but clear—if you’re not from here, we’d prefer you not come at all.

North Haven even went as far as to try to legally prohibit nonresidents from coming to the small island. Put into place on March 15, the ban was approved by the select board and only allowed those providing “medical care, supplies, fuel, emergency services, or law enforcement” to travel to the island, which is only accessible by ferry or plane.

Unsurprisingly, the select board was forced to rescind the order a few days later after public outcry and a call from Governor Mills reminded the town that they had no legal ground to prohibit travel. Regardless, North Haven still published a resolution “requesting and urging” visitors to hold off visiting or coming to stay on the island.

These types of “requests” and “recommendations” have been met with a hearty mix of agreement, anger, and disbelief. Some local residents argued that those who own property on these islands should, in theory, have a right to come and go as they please. Whether they should do so, however, is a matter of conscience. Others pointed to Maine being the state with the largest elderly population (at a greater risk of complications and death) of any in the U.S.

What do these people “from away” think of all this? Should they get a say? Or are they a risk to us?

One such girl “from away,” staying in Maine with her family, has been met with suspicion since hunkering down in their family’s property in a popular summer tourist spot on the water:

“Everyone is looking through their blinds, watching us like zoo animals. They give us the evil eye. They even called the police on one of my family members for being ‘out of place’ in the neighborhood,” the girl said, arguing that her family wanted to be all together in a place that had “fewer cases and less density.” She was overwhelmed with the response that had been building against those not from Maine for years, which has increased in the recent weeks. The people of her area aren’t willing to get to know her, to understand that her mother and family were born in Maine too, and instead call them “the California people” behind their backs.

Spruce Island, Maine

I can’t say I wouldn’t have done the same thing. I’d like to say I wouldn’t, but I doubt I would have taken the time to get to know her after I noted her not-from-here tanned skin and discernible lack of accent. Still, I’d like to think I’ve grown in the recent months.

Even so, I can’t ignore the feelings of anger, resentment, and fear that have been ingrained in me all my life.

Even from the safety of my island, I likely shouldn’t be throwing stones. There is really no clear answer here. Should the residents have to share their limited resources with those who come only to protect themselves, potentially exposing many others to what they potentially bring with them? Or should the residents show a little compassion and try to understand the impetus and wish of visitors and “summer people” to minimize risk to their families? Maybe the words we use to distance ourselves from these people are half the problem.

Perhaps we should all listen to Governor Mills who, after declaring an Executive Order “mandating that travelers arriving in Maine, regardless of their state of residency, self-quarantine for 14 days,” urged Mainers to stay calm, kind, and reasonable. She said, perhaps too hopefully and likely in response to the recent disagreements and concern, “if we pull together, we can and will defeat this virus. Maine is a welcoming state, and we welcome the many service members and medical professionals and others who are coming here to help us.”

She continued: “I ask Maine people not to make assumptions about others, and we welcome the cooperation of other visitors and returning residents in quarantining themselves and keeping us all safe in accordance with this order. Let us treat all people in Maine with compassion and kindness, that is how we will get through this.”

In any case, I’m happy to be safe on my island, and I still smile at strangers—from a distance. Though I can’t say I’ve quite put the pitchforks and torches into winter storage just yet.

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