Coronavirus: Maine sees early, and unwanted, return of seasonal visitors

Local communities depend on arrivals for income but also do not have medical facilities to cope with an outbreak

A boater motors past lobster boats moored off North Haven, Maine, Monday, March 16, 2020. The North Haven Select Board voted to ban visitors and seasonal residents immediately to prevent the spread of the coronavirus to the island in Penobscot Bay. For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover from the new virus. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

The annual tourist invasion of coastal New England has started early, fuelled by "coronavirus refugees" hoping to self-isolate away from big cities.

The trend has alarmed locals from Maine to the resorts of Cape Cod, Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard, who fear the influx could increase the risk of Covid-19 infection and stretch the communities to breaking point.

Already the region has seen a noticeable increase in the number of New York and Connecticut licence plates. Ferries, which bring tourists to the islands of Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard, are abnormally full for this time of year.

Locals say private jets have been "pouring in" at Martha's Vineyard airport.

Nantucket, which would expect its winter population of just over 11,000 to quadruple in the summer, is coming under pressure, admitted Gary Shaw, president of the island's cottage hospital.

"Our island's new hospital is an amazing community hospital designed for routine everyday care and standard surgeries, procedures, diagnostics and obstetrics. It is not built for a global pandemic and no hospital is."

There have also been complaints of shortages at supermarkets and Nantucket officials have asked ferry companies to limit the number of people they bring across from the mainland.

It is symptomatic of the dilemma facing much of coastal New England, where towns go to sleep in the winter and then burst into life around Memorial Day in May.

The summer visitors who create thousands of jobs in hotels and restaurants are normally seen as essential to the economy. This year things are viewed somewhat differently.

The spread of coronavirus cases across the country has not spared New England. The region's six states had reported nearly 800 cases by Saturday, more than half of them in Massachusetts. But the number is considerably lower than other parts of the country – New York state alone had more than 6,000 cases.

An automobile ferry arrives at North Haven, Maine, Monday, March 16, 2020. The North Haven Select Board voted to ban visitors and seasonal residents immediately to prevent the spread of the coronavirus to the island in Penobscot Bay. For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover from the new virus. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

Further north, Maine had just 56 cases as of Saturday. But there are fears that this could change with the arrival of tourists from more heavily populated states and returning "snowbirds" – people who spend the winter in warmer states like Florida.

Many are drawn to Maine's islands, whose beauty has attracted some of America's finest artists including Edward Hopper and Andrew Wyeth.

Most are uninhabited. Others like North Haven, which lies 18 kilometres off the Maine coast, have year-round residents who largely rely on tourism and lobstering.

Last weekend the island's locally elected politicians whipped away the welcome mat and voted to ban "people who do not reside on the island full time".

The ordinance, which was later watered down to a plea, was intended to put a brake on the traditional summer invasion which adds about 2,000 to the permanent population of 355.

With the nearest hospital on the mainland, islanders doubt North Haven could cope with a coronavirus outbreak

"We don't have a hospital," said Gordon Bubar, 74, who runs the island's one grocery store. "You have to get there by boat. It is a bad situation and it is a very bad disease.

"People have to do something, you can't put your head in the sand. It is our job to stay isolated."

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, speaks at a news conference Monday, March 16, 2020, in Augusta, Maine. Shah announced that there are five new cases of coronavirus, bringing the total in Maine to 17. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

With an average age of 48 – 14 years older than the US as a whole – Maine's island communities are more vulnerable to a pandemic.

“These are communities of between 50 and 1,200 people with little or no capacity to deal with medical emergencies," said Rob Snyder,  president of the Island Institute.

“The actions taken by North Haven and being considered by others are understandable.

“Unfortunately, these actions also have the potential to divide the island community, because many of the seasonal residents consider the island home.”

Dr Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, appealed for tolerance.

“I've lived in Maine now for nine months, and never have I lived in any part of the world that is as welcoming to those who are from another part of the country.

“And I hope that it stays that way.”

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