Tony Matoin, a CMP line supervisor who lives in Springvale, drives a company rental with out-of-state plates. He says he recently got an earful from a fellow driver who told him to “get the (blank) out of here and go home.” Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Tony Matoin loaded his groceries into his company pickup truck outside Shaw’s. He had just finished a shift as a line supervisor for Central Maine Power and was headed home to Springvale.

Then a man pulled up in his own vehicle and yelled at Matoin.

“He said get the ‘blank’ out of here and go home.”

Matoin, who has worked for the Maine utility for nearly 33 years, was confused until the man shouted a derogatory name for people from Massachusetts and sped off. Then he remembered. CMP rented more than 100 extra vehicles so crews who usually drive together can get to job sites without carpooling during the coronavirus pandemic. The rental he was driving had license plates from the Bay State.

The 59-year-old Matoin said the experience was surprising, but he understands that people are afraid as the coronavirus spreads, especially people who might now be unemployed because of it.

“We’re still getting paid,” said Matoin said. “We’re going through one crisis, but some people are facing two. Where are they going to eat? Where are they going to pay their bills? I understand why a guy would react like that.”

As public health officials encourage people to keep their distance and stay home, many Mainers are worried that big city residents hoping to get away from virus hot spots will seek out the state’s secluded islands and small towns. Parts of the state with histories and economies tied to hosting out-of-state visitors are now fearing their arrival, in some cases by issuing official orders to try to keep them away and in others by confronting suspected outsiders directly.

Available data does not suggest that tourists or summer residents are flocking to rural havens in large numbers, but anecdotal examples and the quick spread of the virus have fueled those fears nonetheless.

It’s a growing concern as summer approaches in a state that has branded itself as Vacationland. Maine’s population is just 1.3 million, but it had 37 million visitors in 2018.

Local officials are trying to send messages that are kind but firm to seasonal residents, knowing those people may have longtime ties to their communities. Some towns and cities have banned short-term rentals or closed hotels and campgrounds.  This week, more than 23,000 people signed an online petition titled “Keep Tourists out of Maine until May 2020,” calling on Gov. Janet Mills to close the state’s borders to most travelers.

“If the people of Maine are restricted to the people they come in contact with, are told to close their businesses, cannot go to work, cannot go to school and cannot get the supplies they need, we should not be allowing non-Maine residents to flood our state to ‘get away’ from COVID-19,” the petition states.

Mills said said she has no authority to close the border.

Late Friday, however, Mills issued an executive order mandating that anyone who comes to Maine, regardless of where they live, must self-quarantine for 14 days to help slow the spread of the new coronavirus infection. The order also mandates the suspension of all lodging operations, including hotels, motels, bed and breakfasts, inns and short-term rentals, as well as RV park and campgrounds.

The concern about people coming to the state from coronavirus hot spots highlights the tension between Mainers and people “from away” that has persisted for centuries even as the state is dependent on its tourism economy, said Kreg Ettenger, director of the Maine Studies program and an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Maine.

“There’s always been that tension and a little fear. Now it feels more real with people coming from areas that are hard-hit by the virus,” Ettenger said. “Not knowing how that’s going to impact the rapid spread in our state has added to what is already sometimes a tense situation. It’s been magnified by the fear of the unknown.”

But, Ettenger said, it’s important to remember that the pandemic will not last forever.

“When it’s over, how do we want to be remembered – as the state that tried to close its door on those seeking shelter, or the one that pulled them into the lifeboat?” he said. “The long-term future of Maine depends on being seen as a welcoming place for visitors, not a place that fears and rejects them. We’re going to have to find a way to all deal with this crisis together, Mainers and visitors alike.”

Steve McCausland, spokesman for the Maine Department of Public Safety, said the fear of outsiders reminds him of the days after the 2001 terrorist attacks when state police were inundated with calls from Mainers suspicious of people who looked like they weren’t from here. And he warned about jumping to conclusions. There are a number of reasons people have cars without Maine plates, including health care workers coming to help respond to the coronavirus crisis.

McCausland is blunt in his assessment of the harassment: “It’s unacceptable and it needs to stop.”

ISLANDERS FEAR LOSS OF ESSENTIAL SERVICES

March is already a stressful month for many islands, as the winter lingers on and the earnings from last summer run low.

“This has always been a difficult time of year on the coast, regardless of the pandemic.” said Rob Snyder, president of the Island Institute.

Then, add that pandemic.

The tension revealed itself on North Haven when officials voted to block nonresidents from coming to the Penobscot Bay island and then rescinded that order due to legal concerns. When the only gas station and laundromat on Peaks Island closed because an employee tested positive for coronavirus, the Casco Bay islanders asked the Portland City Council to take greater steps to discourage nonessential travel on the ferry.

Vinalhaven made national news when a group of island residents allegedly felled a tree across a driveway in an attempt to force visitors from another state to quarantine. Those tensions apparently remained high last week, when one of the visitors reported a windshield being broken at the ferry landing. Police are investigating both incidents.

“Nervous, concerned, scared, uncertain,” Vinalhaven Town Manager Andrew Dorr said when asked to describe the mood on the island. “All of those things come to mind.”

Islanders say they need to protect scarce resources and critical services. Their communities need healthy crews for ferries and barges that bring food and fuel. Some islands have health centers if residents get sick, but they do not have the same capabilities as mainland hospitals. Many year-round residents on the islands are self-employed, and they are waiting for answers about how the stay-at-home orders will impact their income and whether federal aid is available to them.

They also a familiar with the annual flow of visitors. The total population of the Maine islands triples in size from more than 4,000 year-round to 12,000 in the warmer seasons, according to 2018 estimates from the Island Institute. Snyder said municipal officials have been working together to carefully craft the right messages to send to their usual seasonal residents.

“The communities have wanted to respond in a caring way, but also a very informed way, providing good information about why it’s not a good time to come here and what it could mean to the community to have a lot of people show up here,” Snyder said.

On Vinalhaven, Dorr wrote a letter in response to the driveway incident highlighting islanders’ more positive responses to the crisis, such as meal deliveries to neighbors.

“Misinformation coupled with fear led to an unfortunate incident led by one or two people,” Dorr wrote. “Emotions are running high throughout the nation, but on Vinalhaven the response to the Covid-19 pandemic is, for most people, a thoughtful, rational approach to slowing its progress and caring for its people, with no tolerance for vigilante action.”

SE Rafferty lives on Peaks Island and works as a nurse at Maine Medical Center in Portland.

“When it was disclosed that there was a case (on the island), I did feel the collective anxiety rise, even though folks knew it was coming,” Rafferty, 44, said.

As part of the island response to the pandemic, Rafferty helped organize an emotional health committee. She said there is tension on the island about the possible arrival of seasonal residents and other travelers, but she wants to avoid an “us versus them” mentality in those conversations.

“Coming from places like New York where it’s very anonymous or I assume it is, they may not understand the large impact that they have in a small community,” Rafferty said. “They may need to be reminded in gentle ways to know that they have an impact, their presence has an impact, whether they’re sick or not.”

‘SALVAGE OUR SUMMER’

As confirmed cases of coronavirus were spreading into York County, so-called snowbirds began returning early from their winter homes in southern states and day-trippers flooded the beaches on weekends. On Facebook, locals posted about out-of-state license plates and complained about their presence and the potential that they would bring the virus with them.

The concerns led to the closure of several town beaches near Maine’s southern border, among the first official steps to dissuade visitors from away.

“Everybody reacts to fear differently. It’s manifested itself into very blunt messages telling people to stay away,” said John MacLeod, a Wells selectman and local business owner. “It’s not helpful and we’re losing sight of what’s important: that we’re all trying to protect lives.”

The year-round population of Wells hovers around 10,000, but swells to more than 40,000 during the height of the summer season. The town has more than 5,000 seasonal rental units, many of them in densely populated cottage complexes, campgrounds and beach neighborhoods.

Cars with Massachusetts and New Hampshire license plates drive along Atlantic Avenue in Wells on Thursday. Seasonal houses along the beach in Wells are so tightly packed together that town officials are discouraging out of state seasonal homeowners from coming to Maine to live in their homes as well as discouraging them from renting the homes. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Some summer residents used to live here full time and now head south for the winter. Others come to beach homes owned by their families for generations. Those connections make it that much harder to tell them to stay away for now, but MacLeod thinks it’s the responsible thing to do.

“It would be irresponsible to invite more people in knowing we would have a difficult time caring for them if they did get sick,” he said. “We’re trying to say this isn’t a vacation time right now and we have limited resources.”

Last week, the Wells Board of Selectmen enacted an emergency order that prohibits short-term rentals, closes hotels and campgrounds to most people, and asks seasonal residents not to come until at least May 1.

Town officials said they are concerned about limited stock in grocery stores, the small number of ICU beds available in York County and the potential that people coming from areas harder hit by the virus could become sick while in Maine. They worry if the virus isn’t contained it will derail the critical summer season.

“We want you to be here, but not right now,” Selectman Timothy Roche said last week. “We just can’t handle it.”

Concern about limited resources is shared by communities along the southern Maine coast, where populations swell by tens of thousands during the busy summer season.

Kennebunk Town Manager Mike Pardue looks at the shelves in Hannaford every day, taking stock of what’s available and what’s still in short supply. He has significant concerns about the health care resources available to deal with an influx of people in the midst of a health crisis.

The town is working on an order to be considered by the select board that encourages seasonal residents to delay their arrival in town. Seasonal residents who do come to Kennebunk – Pardue said there’s nothing he can do to stop them – are being asked to self-quarantine for 14 days, which is also what Mills has asked people returning to Maine to do.

York and Old Orchard Beach issued emergency orders that effectively closed hotels and campgrounds, prohibit short-term rentals or ask seasonal residents not to come to Maine until at least May. Kennebunkport issued a similar order strongly advising against visitors.

How many people have flowed into the beach resort towns is unknown. But, occupancy of seasonal accommodations in Old Orchard has grown notably in the past week as individuals seek to flee the spread of the COVID-19 virus in their home communities, according to an emergency declaration signed last week.

Old Orchard, which has so far kept its wide sand beach open, has 8,900 year-round residents and a summer population of more than 35,000.

Last week, Town Manager Larry Mead sent a letter to 350 seasonal property owners with a primary mailing address in New York, New Jersey or Connecticut, where travel advisories have been declared by the federal government because of the concentration of virus cases. The letters asked them not to visit or stay at their property in Old Orchard Beach until the travel advisories have been lifted or while there continues to be community spread of the coronavirus in their state.

Aerial view of houses along Wells Beach, photographed on Saturday. Town officials are discouraging out of state seasonal residents from coming to their homes and also from allowing short-term rentals of the homes. Gov. Janet Mills has ordered that anyone arriving from out of state must self-quarantine for 14 days. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Another 1,000 letters to property owners with addresses in Massachusetts were sent out late in the week.

“By following the recommended advisory not to travel to Maine you are doing your part to shorten the duration of the pandemic so that we can return to normalcy and enjoy the coming summer in Old Orchard Beach,” Mead wrote in the letter.

RURAL RECREATION STILL HAS RISKS

Some of Maine’s winter recreation areas, like ski mountains and the campgrounds at Baxter Stater State Park, ended the season early because of the virus.

But the availability of abundant seasonal housing, often owned by people from outside the state, has fueled fears there, too.

Rumors have swirled in communities near ski resorts that people who own condos or seasonal homes in the area are running to Maine to escape areas with higher numbers of coronavirus cases. But there is little evidence that is actually happening in significant numbers, according to rental agents, town officials or travel patterns monitored by the Maine Turnpike Authority.

“I don’t really see a huge influx of people looking to get to our area. Nobody’s booking right now,” Dave Huard, owner of Connecting Rentals of Bethel, told the Sun Journal last week.

Bethel Town Manager Loretta Powers said she is aware some people are not happy with nonresidents coming to the area, but the town has not enacted any orders to stop them.

“We do tell the ones that call (that) they should actually stay home and that they need to self-quarantine for two weeks if they come,” she said. “Now, who is going to actually enforce that?”

The Nature Conservancy oversees more than 300,000 acres across Maine. Nancy Sferra, the director of land management, said the organization is monitoring some areas for overcrowding but hasn’t needed to close lands yet. She encouraged people to get outside if they are healthy. And she has hikers to send feedback about the trail conditions and any health hazards. But she also said they shouldn’t jump to conclusions if they see out-of-state plates at a trailhead.

“You don’t know how long those people have been there,” she said. “They live part of the year someplace else, and maybe this is the season they live in Maine.”

Related Headlines


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.