DEER ISLE — The spring months always bring an influx of seasonal residents to Hancock County. This year, those residents are arriving earlier than usual.
With the number of confirmed coronavirus cases continuing to rise and places throughout the country issuing citywide or even statewide lockdowns, many seasonal residents have been looking to the less-clustered Downeast area for refuge.
“We are hearing reports from service providers, like property caretakers, fuel vendors, grocery store clerks and plumbers,” Deer Isle Town Manager James Fisher told The Ellsworth American. “[They’re telling us that] this is, in fact, happening.”
Town populations on Deer Isle and Mount Desert Island and throughout the Blue Hill Peninsula can more than double during the spring and summer as seasonal residents begin to arrive. Such is the case in Deer Isle, where Fisher said the population swells from roughly 2,000 to 4,000 in a “normal summer.”
Among plumbers, these early arrivals have been relatively noteworthy, though not unexpected. Although Becky Gray of John H. Gray Electrical, Plumbing and Heating in Brooksville said the business received a “fairly insignificant” number of calls after receiving a few at the start of COVID-19’s emergence, that has not been the case everywhere.
“In the past five days, we’ve had requests from four people to turn on the water in five homes,” Randy Sprague, owner of Sprague Heating & Plumbing in Bar Harbor, told the Mount Desert Islander last Tuesday. “They are trying to escape.”
Hancock County’s rural, spread-out landscape has made it an attractive location for those looking to flee congested cities or states that have seen large-scale spread of the virus. Even with the swell of summer residents, Hancock County is far from densely populated as winter subsides and gives way to warmer weather.
“Not only do we not have much of the disease here yet, but we also don’t have big cities with large crowds,” Northern Light Maine Coast Hospital Senior Physician Executive Dr. Sheena Whittaker said. “We have that natural distancing that we do all the time, and I think that appeals to people in a time like this.”
Thus far, Maine has not seen a catastrophic outbreak the likes of which have taken place in Louisiana, New York or Washington or internationally in Italy and Spain. The state had reported 118 cases of the coronavirus as of Tuesday afternoon, and a positive test has yet to be confirmed in Hancock County.
Yet as Governor Janet Mills said Tuesday, Maine should not be seen as a safe haven from the virus. Ordering the closing of all nonessential, public-facing businesses for a period of 14 days, Mills gave a stern reminder that Mainers who don’t take social-distancing precautions seriously are still at risk of contracting and spreading COVID-19.
“I cannot just close the borders of our state, but for those people who may be subject to orders in other places and believe they can escape that by coming here or escape the virus by coming here, they are wrong,” Mills said in a press conference. “It is here; it is everywhere.”
Some Hancock County towns and businesses have urged arriving seasonal residents to take precautions to keep both themselves and full-time residents safe. Many have encouraged returning residents and family members to self-quarantine, though enforcing such guidelines can be difficult with those residents looking to stock up on food, fuel and daily household items immediately upon arrival.
“It is pretty clear that some seasonal residents and returning family members are visiting the grocery store and gas station,” Fisher said. “This is not ideal, but we have no legal basis to restrict their movement.”
In some communities, efforts have been made to grant access solely to residents. Outside of Hancock County, the island of North Haven, located 12 miles southwest of Deer Isle but accessible only via ferry from Rockland, has banned access to nonresidents. Bar Harbor officials, citing the town’s “very limited” number of open visitor- and tourist-based attractions, requested that nonresidents avoid travel to the town.
Elsewhere on MDI, the Tremont Board of Selectmen specifically referenced seasonal residents in a letter distributed Tuesday. The letter urged the town’s early-arriving residents to take precautions and told them not to expect the same services and amenities of years past.
“We will respect your choice to use your seasonal residence, but please understand that your arrival here puts those of us already here under additional risk,” the letter stated. “We are a very small community with limited resources. Most businesses you may have experienced here in the past are only seasonal and are normally closed this time of year, even in less trying times.”
Whether residents are seasonal or year-round, though, Whittaker said everybody should continue to practice social distancing. Although hospitals are well-equipped with ICU beds and ventilators for now, they can only stay that way if everybody does their part.
“Everybody should be taking precautions,” Whittaker said. “People coming back want to visit family and friends, but for right now, the best way to stay safe and keep others safe is to stay home.”