Customers stand in line outside Hannaford Supermarket this month on Sabattus Street in Lewiston, where half wore masks and respected the 6-foot distance rule. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal file photo Buy this Photo

It doesn’t take long for anyone driving around the area to see that Maine’s social distancing rules are sometimes ignored.

People congregate in places they shouldn’t and get too close to people they’re not living with, including workers at businesses that are allowed to remain open.

At Blackie’s Farm Fresh Produce in Auburn, owner Matt Manson said Friday that probably 80% of his customers are wearing masks, but not all of them adhere to the 6-foot distance they’re supposed to keep from one another.

“Some folks are, and some folks are not,” he said.

Manson said his new curbside pickup business is booming, though, a sign that a lot of people want to avoid contact.

He said he’s careful to limit the number of patrons who enter the store at the same time since the rules call for no more than five at once for his small establishment. That often leaves a line outside, particularly given the newfound tendency of many residents to cook more at home.

While Manson said he’s doing his best to follow state rules, there are establishments around that are, from casual observation, falling short.

It’s not clear that anybody is really checking up much on whether businesses that remain open are following suggested or even required protective measures.

Val’s Drive-In on Sabattus Street was hopping on April 20. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal file photo Buy this Photo

So far, police in Auburn and Lewiston have not cited anyone for violating Gov. Janet Mills’ orders, though a few verbal warnings have been given.

Despite some issues, it’s obvious there are many fewer people out and about than on similar days before the threat of COVID-19 caused officials to issue public health edicts shutting down nonessential businesses and setting new standards for those that remain open.

The point of the shutdown is to limit social contacts and slow the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19 to try to avoid a surge of patients seeking health care that could overwhelm the capacity of Maine hospitals to provide help.

The state has ordered nonessential businesses to stay closed until at least April 30. It’s also barred restaurants and bars from using their dining rooms, though they’re still allowed to offer delivery, curbside or takeout options.

Customers at essential businesses are supposed to be kept 6 feet apart, with limits on how many can be inside a store at the same time that depend on the size of the retailer.

People who aren’t working at essential businesses are required to stay home unless they have to go out for a clear and approved purpose, such as doing laundry or buying food. They can also go out to exercise.

It’s not going out on a limb to say that Mills’ stay-at-home orders have made a difference. Many residents must be hunkered down because they’re not somewhere else.

All around, there are once busy places that are now closed, from Forage Market on Lisbon Street to Hobby Lobby, Kohl’s and other big retailers in Auburn.

Others are simply silent, including Bates College in Lewiston, normally bustling with a couple of thousand students and a large staff.

Traffic is down, not just on the Maine Turnpike where it’s possible to count exactly, but everywhere. Parking lots have more open spaces. Parks have few visitors. Even the often-tricky traffic light in front of Auburn Hall doesn’t pose an obstacle.

Auburn Police Chief Jason Moen said his department hasn’t fielded any complaints about businesses that aren’t keeping customers or employees safe.

He said it gets occasional calls from people who see things in the parks or playgrounds that may violate social distancing rules.

Moen said officers have issued three verbal warnings to ordinary folks so far, but it’s never gone beyond that.

Police Chief Brian O’Malley in Lewiston said his department has “not had to take any enforcement action against any business in Lewiston.”

If there were any complaints about not adhering to safety standards related to the pandemic, he said, officers would “speak with them and educate them on the governor’s orders.”

The governor’s office said its pandemic orders are supposed to be enforced by law enforcement as necessary and violations are a Class E crime subject to up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.

The places where nearly everyone eventually goes, including grocery stores, have taken some precautions to try to keep customers and employees safe.

At Hannaford Supermarkets, they’ve erected plastic barriers between customers and cashiers, tried to impose one-way movement in aisles and added signs and floor decals to help guide people to stay far enough apart.

But there’s no legal necessity to take every possible precaution.

The Maine Turnpike Authority, for example, has voluntarily told its toll collectors to wear gloves. It may soon add masks as well.

Peter Mills, the authority’s executive director, said he’s not convinced they need them in a largely outdoor setting, but “almost every retail setting is requiring the help wear masks.”

Some go even further.

At Axis Natural Foods on Center Street in Auburn, customers can only make purchases online or by phone. They set a time for pickup outside and well-protected store staff bring their orders out to the buyer’s vehicle.

Just down the street, at a Burger King, all orders are done at the drive-through, with a gloved, masked employee at the single window collecting cash or credit cards in a plastic bucket and handing over orders the same way. There isn’t any direct contact, though customer and cashier are within 6 feet of one another.

Manson said at his busy produce shop, there are masks available for employees but they’ve found them to be more trouble than they’re worth since they have to pull them down constantly to talk to customers.

Gloves, too, strike him as too much bother because of the need to wash hands so frequently. They get wet inside, he said, and that’s not good.

He said business has been good, with so many people stocking up and seeking fresh produce.

Manson said he’s only had a little trouble so far getting the produce itself.

Five-pound bags of carrots were tough to find, he said, so he wound up getting 50 pounds bags and then splitting them up into smaller sizes for his customers.

Everybody, it seems, just has to find a way to make do.

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.