So much has changed during the two years since the COVID-19 pandemic officially reached Maine on March 12, 2020.

And many of those changes will last far after the pandemic ends. Some are permanent.

More than 2,100 Maine families and communities have lost loved ones. Businesses have closed. Careers have ended. Some who survived the virus continue to struggle with long-term health effects.

At the same time, many have also started new careers, made new homes in Maine or forged new relationships, all because of the pandemic.

Historians will look back at how Maine and the world changed during the past two years. On a personal level, many Mainers already know. Here are some of their stories.

How has the pandemic changed your life? Email us at [email protected] and tell us how.

 


‘How many people are left behind?’

Photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

Marie Follayttar caught a breakthrough case of COVID-19 in October. But instead of getting better, her symptoms continue to persist and evolve, and it’s not known when, or if, they will go away.

She is still suffering with symptoms, like fatigue, brain fog, shortness of breath and an ever-changing list of medical problems. And she is one of thousands participating in a national study of long-haul COVID-19.

“It’s like I’m spinning a roulette wheel of symptoms, and every two weeks it’s something different. Will it be hives, headaches, dry eyes?” said Follayttar, 45, of South Portland.

As one of 18,000 patients participating in the national RECOVER study that is researching long-haul patients like Follayttar and comparing them to control groups, the four-year project aims to discover how to effectively diagnose and treat long COVID-19. MaineHealth is part of the national study, and so far has 16 study subjects, including Follayttar, with a goal of researching 100 people over four years.

Follayttar said despite being vaccinated with the Johnson & Johnson shot, and with a week to go before she would have been eligible for a booster shot, she fell ill with COVID-19 in October.

“They say you’ll feel better in a couple weeks, and I just didn’t. I thought, ‘Why isn’t this going away?” said Follayttar, who organizes for the liberal advocacy group she founded, Mainers for Accountable Leadership.

Follayttar said she didn’t need to be hospitalized, but because she has asthma, late last year she needed to use nebulizers to help her breathe, and would still have 4-5 violent asthma attacks per day. She lost her voice, and suffered from extreme fatigue, fever, headaches and other symptoms.

“I couldn’t stand up to do the dishes, and that’s scary,” Follayttar said.

By December, she started seeking treatment for long-haul COVID-19, and found the MaineHealth study, and also a MaineHealth long-haul clinic in Portland, where she is being treated.

She undergoes physical and speech therapy, which has helped her breathing, and uses pain management techniques.

“I had to train my vocal chords to open all the way,” Follayttar said.

The impacts of long-haul COVID-19 on society are not yet known, but promise to be substantial, said Dr. Cliff Rosen, of the Maine Medical Center Research Institute and the principal investigator of long COVID-19 for MaineHealth. Rosen said early research is showing about 10 percent to 40 percent of people who have contracted COVID-19 will be long-haul patients. So millions of Americans could potentially be suffering for many years, affecting the workforce as well as having psychological and social impacts.

“This is a big problem that is only going to get bigger,” Rosen said, although scientists are working on how to properly diagnose and treat the disease.

As for what the future holds, Follayttar said all she can do is take it day by day, try to improve, and socialize carefully, as she doesn’t want to become reinfected.

And Follayttar said she will continue to advocate for political reforms, just not at the breakneck pace she was used to before she fell ill.

“Every piece of my story is me fighting for care. Not everyone can do that, so how many people are left behind?” Follayttar said. “The question remains is how will the government respond? How do we meet this crisis?”

– Joe Lawlor


‘Have faith in yourself that it will all work out.’

Photo by Derek Davis

Tori Leonard says the pandemic was the push she needed to rethink her career. 

Leonard, 26, is a civil engineer and had been working with a Cape Cod construction management company for three years.

Two years into her job with the company and working in an assistant project management role, she knew it wasn’t a forever fit.  But it was the pandemic that helped her realize she needed to do something different.

Working from home during the pandemic only added to her workload because she struggled to stop work at the end of the day. 

“I felt like I was just constantly working,” she said. 

Her job added a lot of stress to her life and she missed her friends and family in Maine. 

She started, she said, by getting back to her people, her support system, and building her next career path from there. 

So Leonard and her two miniature Australian shepherds, Roo and Boomer, packed up and moved back to Kennebunk, where she grew up. 

“With COVID, you need your closest people around you,” she said. 

Leonard had been considering a real estate career for several months after a conversation with a friend in the field.  She could essentially be her own boss and create as much or as little work as she wanted and her civil engineering background could still be valuable. 

She started as a real estate agent with Coldwell Banker in February 2021, joining the profession at a time when homes are selling almost as soon as they’re listed, prices are higher than ever and offers are streaming in, frequently tens of thousands of dollars over the asking price. 

“It’s awesome to be a seller and a listing agent, but it’s hard and sad for buyers. … My heart hurts for buyers right now,” she said, recalling a client who put in an offer $50,000 over the asking price but still didn’t get the house. There were 54 offers. 

But she also gets to be the person to help first-time home buyers navigate a challenging market, the most rewarding part of the job for Leonard. 

“They’re so excited to start this new chapter in their first home,” she said. “It’s really sweet to see people starting their lives.” 

Leonard said she still has a hard time setting work aside. 

“I’m still trying to figure out that balance,” she said. “Shutting off is kind of hard for me.” 

But the move back home and the career change have given Leonard more time for her personal life, including more time with her boyfriend and Roo and Boomer.  She recently joined a book club and she’s been coaching gymnastics.  

“My biggest takeaway from this whole thing is just to have faith in yourself that it will all work out,” she said. “Keep trying to chase that next best thing.” 

– Hannah LaClaire


‘I just opened myself up more’

Photo by Brianna Soukup

At the start of the pandemic, Natalie DiBenedetto was freshly separated from her husband. She owned a successful fried chicken takeout business that she hoped to expand – and she was drinking too much.

Exactly two years later, she has closed the business, Figgy’s Takeout and Catering in Portland’s West End, sold the building that housed it, divorced, moved in with her new love – a woman, and is 10 months sober. She is also looking for a job.

“If these last two years didn’t change you,” DiBenedetto said, “it’s just hard for me to imagine.”

The Cliffs Notes version of her pandemic, professional side, looks like this: Stuck at home, unable to dine out, customers lined up for Figgy’s popular skillet fried chicken, biscuits and more. Sales tripled. “We were in the trenches all of 2020,” DiBenedetto said. “It was a manic ride. It was the hardest I ever worked.”

But when the vaccine arrived, just like that, the situation flipped. Sales plummeted. DiBenedetto speculates people were tired of takeout and eager to eat out. Exhausted and broke, in July 2021 she closed Figgy’s and the next month sold the building to her tenants, Yordprom Coffee Co.

The sale has bought her time: “That’s really the only way that I am not desperately in trouble right now, financially.” But that’s not to say she doesn’t miss her staff and the business she ran for six years. “If you are a runner and all of (a) sudden you stop running, your legs still want to go.”

Since then, DiBenedetto has held pop-up dinners, written restaurant reviews for the Mainer, scoured Craigslist for jobs, freshened up her LinkedIn profile, helped with her partner’s home repair business, applied for jobs (“I wonder if my resume looks tired and old, but I haven’t gotten a single call back”), dreamed of signing on with Washington, D.C., chef Jose Andres’ World Central Kitchen to help feed fleeing Ukrainians, and, she said with a laugh, “cooked my family elaborate meals.”

“I haven’t figured it out yet.”

But if her next career move is still unclear, her personal life is humming along. Her teenage son Basil is acing school, playing drums and tennis, and earning his own pocket money. “The kid has zero fear,” his mother said proudly. DiBenedetto herself has stopped drinking, and she’s in love. “I don’t think (the pandemic) brought us together, but when we did get together, it was like ‘yep.’ If you met during the pandemic, you can speed up the process by two.”

That the object of her affection is a woman also “absolutely” had something to do with the pandemic. DiBenedetto likens its impact to the sudden death of her first husband when Basil was just a toddler. “You completely reprioritize everything and for me at least, there was intense soul searching. What do I want and what does that look like? Is there happiness out there that I haven’t been exposed to? I just opened myself up more.”

– Peggy Grodinsky


‘Your kids aren’t supposed to die before you do’

Photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

The text message appeared stark and final on his cellphone.

“Grandaddy she has passed.”

Only hours before, Bob Greene had learned that his eldest daughter, Leslie Greene, had been battling COVID-19 for 11 days.

A carpenter and machinist, always dependable and self-sufficient, she had finally reached out for help on Jan. 25, calling a niece who lived near her home in Indianapolis.

Syreeta Wallace accompanied her 62-year-old aunt to the hospital that day, but it was too late. Her heart gave out soon after arriving and no amount of CPR would save her. Between consultations with doctors and nurses, Wallace kept family members across the country informed with calls and texts.

The last message shocked Greene, then it broke his heart.

“Your kids aren’t supposed to die before you do,” said Greene, 86, who lives in South Portland. “She was one of the pillars of the family. I feel the loss of her, especially because it happened so quickly.”

The pandemic complicated the settling of his daughter’s estate and made it impossible for Greene to attend the funeral, he said. The coronavirus has taken several of his friends and family members, including an uncle and a few cousins, and it has tested him in other ways, threatening both his livelihood and the roof over his head.

But Greene is no stranger to life’s struggles and losses, amid many successes and accomplishments. He is a father of five who was married and divorced twice. The youngest of his three sons, Eric, another pillar of the family, died of a massive heart attack in 2016 at age 55. Greene survived a bout with colorectal cancer in his late 60s.

Greene grew up in Portland and wrote for The Associated Press for 36 years, covering everything from Washington politics to Wimbledon tennis tournaments. After retiring, he became an expert on African-American history in Maine while researching his family’s genealogy. He now lectures widely on the everyday lives and tragic injustices experienced by people of color through the centuries in one of the whitest states.

He also still works part time as a hearing reporter for Social Security disability claims, documenting exchanges between federal officials, clients and their representatives.

“It used to be I would travel to Portland, Augusta, Bangor or Presque Isle and there would be several people in the room,” Greene said. Now, he sits alone in the agency’s Portland office and is one of several people attending a virtual meeting online or by phone.

Greene’s biggest challenge in the weeks ahead will be to find another place to live, thanks to a pandemic-driven real estate boom and housing shortage. His apartment complex sold last fall for the third time in recent years and the new owner notified him that his monthly rent will increase from $1,800 to $2,100 when his lease expires in May.

“Just rent and utilities would be over half my income,” Greene said. “I can’t afford to stay here and I have no idea where I will move.”

Despite his predicament, Greene is inclined to make the best of any situation. A music lover – especially jazz – he resumed attending live shows as soon as the pandemic eased. Previously a world traveler, he looks forward to a time when travel in general is easier.

“I try not to let the stress bother me,” Greene said. “I try to do my own thing and enjoy my time.”

– Kelley Bouchard


‘The future is almost never even remotely what we thought it was going to be’

Photo by Ben McCanna

In March 2020, Dillon Folger was supposed to attend a sommelier training seminar in Texas.

Instead, he quit his restaurant job and got out of his apartment in Austin, booked a one-way plane ticket to Maine and moved back to his parents’ house.

“That was that,” Folger, 31, said. “And Austin was over.”

He left after he listened to a podcast interview with an infectious disease specialist from Johns Hopkins University and knew the virus was coming for his chosen career. He saw then how COVID-19 would change his life and the world.

“Change is more constant than anything,” he said. “If there’s one thing we can be sure of in this life, it’s that we have no idea or really much control over what’s happening next.”

Folger grew up in South Berwick. He wasn’t interested in higher education after high school, and he worked in landscaping and construction. When he was 22, he enrolled in a philosophy class at Southern Maine Community College. He said that experience opened his mind to new ways of thinking, but he struggled to commit to school.

He spent a few years living in Boston and spending his paychecks in bars, and then he decided to make a change. He moved to Austin, cut back on partying and focused on his mental health.

He started working as a server in fine dining restaurants and studying wine, envisioning himself curating a wine list and pouring expensive bottles for customers in the future.

Folger said he had always envisioned himself returning to Maine, but not so soon. His younger brother and sister were also at home with their parents, so the five of them settled in together during the pandemic.

Folger turned 30 that fall, a milestone that expanded his self-reflection. He thought about his own growth in the previous decade and that moment of clarity when he left his life in Texas. He decided he wanted to enroll again at Southern Maine Community College.

“How will that change me?” he wanted to know. “How will that give me leverage to navigate life’s insecurities?”

He took a couple of classes at first, then a full schedule. He decided to study psychology, where he could study thinking itself.

Folger will graduate with an associate degree in the spring and continue his studies at the University of Southern Maine in the fall. He might even be interested in a Ph.D., but he is keeping his mind and his plans open.

“The future is almost never even remotely what we thought it was going to be, even sometimes the next day and the next hour of the day,” he said.

– Megan Gray


‘The biggest thing is just not taking things for granted’

Photo by Ben McCanna

When Maine’s educational leaders decided to cancel the 2020 high school football season in Maine, dreams of Friday night glory were dashed across the state.

Few lost more than Atticus Soehren, 19, of Otisfield.

The son of Oxford Hills High football coach and chemistry and physics teacher Mark Soehren, Atticus was the Vikings’ returning starting quarterback and was looking forward to a college career.

He had grown 3 inches and gained 30 pounds since his junior season. On his way to being the class valedictorian, Atticus Soehren had the grades to get into top academic colleges. What he needed was a strong senior season to convince those colleges’ football coaches he was worth having on their teams. And Oxford Hills was loaded with talent, including his younger brother Elias Soehren.

“I don’t think I ever thought I wouldn’t have my senior year,” Atticus said. “I just assumed that it would happen. I was a football player. Homecoming. Senior year. Captain. Quarterback, with dad as head coach. That was really, really hard to lose.”

With his football aspirations stalled, Soehren and his family decided he would do a post-graduate year at Bridgton Academy.

“It was for football. Just to get recruited,” Soehren said.

But before he got to Bridgton, he discovered he had an athletic alternative.

As it turned out, Atticus Soehren can throw a javelin better than he can throw a football. He won the Maine Class A championship on June 5 with a throw over 185 feet. Soon Harvard, Cornell, Dartmouth, Penn and Brown, schools that had been lukewarm about Soehren the quarterback, were very interested in Soehren the javelin thrower.

“Football had always been me recruiting them,” Atticus said. “I definitely had a lot more track interest right off the jump than I ever did in football.”

This past November, Soehren announced his commitment to attend the University of Pennsylvania and join their track team. Ivy League schools do not offer athletic scholarships, but his javelin throwing was a significant factor to ensure admission.

He plans to major in biology with a concentration in ecology and evolution. His dream job? To be a professor and do research on avian life.

“I can tell you I think he is happier now than he would have been playing football,” Mark Soehren said. “He said to me that it’s worked out. Better than he had hoped, to be honest.”

Having the pandemic derail his football goals still hurts, especially not having a senior season with his dad and brother. But, besides leading to an unexpected athletic career, the pandemic has also changed the way Atticus Soehren looks at his future.

“I think the biggest thing is just not taking things for granted,” he said. “It’s kind of a different outlook of doing things 100 percent at all times, not knowing if you’ll have tomorrow. Injuries can do the same thing, I guess. That’s kind of athletics. Just being able to adapt.”

– Steve Craig


‘I had to choose one or the other’

Photo by Russ Dillingham

After 31 years, the pandemic ended Sarah Carlson’s time teaching in the classroom.

She hadn’t planned to retire at 62, but it was the only way she could become part of her new grandson’s COVID-19 “baby bubble.”

The last day Carlson taught in Farmington’s Cascade Brook School was Friday, March 13, 2020, one day after COVID-19 officially arrived in Maine. She soon learned schools would be closed to in-person learning the rest of the academic year.

“We scrambled,” she said. “We teachers never got to finish with our groups for the school year 2019-20. I did see some of them online. I went to some of their houses wearing masks, but we never got closure. That felt like a loss.”

Meanwhile, Carlson, a widow, received joyous news: Her daughter and her husband were expecting their first child.

“That whole summer of 2020, education was in such a state of flux, trying to figure out would be it OK to teach and be with my grandson,” Carlson said. “It became painfully clear to me I had to choose one or the other.”

“I just love teaching. I wasn’t ready to not be teaching,” she said. “I decided to give up something I hold very dear. It was tough.”

As a baby born during the peak of pandemic and before vaccines, the family’s priority was to keep young Otto safe by limiting who was around him. The so-called baby bubble numbered five people: the two parents, two grandmothers and one friend.

Meanwhile, her school district needed teachers with online learning experience. Her district asked if she’d teach remotely for one year as a retiree. She agreed. “Nobody had a game plan,” she said. “We made it up as we went along. It was amazing.”

Teaching remotely allowed her to visit her daughter’s family in their New Hampshire home. In October, Otto was born. “I was able to hold him at three days old,” Carlson said.

Carlson also taught an online university-level education class. But she resisted the urge to return to the public school classroom as a substitute teacher for the health of her grandson. “We continued to try to keep him safe.”

Leaving teaching, Carlson turned her attention to baby Otto. But she also focused on writing poetry, She’s now working with a publisher on her third book of poems.

Living through the pandemic has included hard decisions, she said. It’s a constant balance on how to shuffle all the information, how to stay connected with others, “and also take care of ourselves,” she said. The pandemic gave her more solitude, which can be hard, but it also allowed her time for self-reflection and growth, Carlson said.

Carlson misses her students, but giving up her career was worth it, she said. Her grandson is now 16 months old.

“He reminds us all to look closely, listen intently, and love deeply.”

– Bonnie Washuk


‘We may never go back’

Photo by Derek Davis

It was February 2020 and the Ballroom Thieves had just released their third full-length album, “Unlovely.”

They were playing a handful of shows out West ahead of an April launch party back in Maine, followed by a proper tour to support the album, their most ambitious to date.

Then Martin Earley and Calin Peters, the couple behind the indie folk-rock band, had to do something unthinkable. They had to abandon that tour and largely forget an album they spent two years making, an album that explored timely themes of inequality and privilege, an album that might have catapulted their career.

“We even spent money to get the perfect cover art,” Peters, 34, said recently from the midcoast home she and Earley share.

The pandemic has altered lives everywhere, but for many who make a living performing and connecting with audiences, the disruption has been profound. For many months in 2020, all music artists stopped touring. Concert venues were shut down. Peters and Earley never got the chance to earn back touring what they spent to make their album.

Since they couldn’t tour, they focused on the one thing they could control: Creating new music.

“Much like everyone else, we were in a sort of dazed state of confusion. We didn’t do much of anything for the first 4-5 months of the pandemic,” said Earley, also 34. “We knew we couldn’t tour for the foreseeable future, so we just focused on writing the next album.”

Although musicians have adapted, some things may never be the same.

“I think one thing that may end being permanent is how this time has sped up the democratization of the music industry,” Earley said. “It used to be you had to have a label in order to make a career. We may never go back to any model that is label-driven.”

Labels exist largely to help produce and promote music and coordinate touring, but musicians are increasingly making their own music and promoting it themselves, often through social media. That’s never been more evident than during the pandemic.

Peters said the realization that the band might need to do more self-promotion on social media, where so many spend their time, has been tough to stomach.

“It’s not really what we signed up for,” she said. “We wanted it to be about the music.”

As challenging as the pandemic has been for Earley and Peters, there is reason for optimism. Longtime band member Devin Mauch left the band (amicably) to pursue other interests. Another member, John Nolan, has been added for tours, along with multi-instrumentalist Ariel Bernstein, who has played with the band in the past.

“That’s an interesting thing to navigate,” Earley said of the lineup change. “But it’s also fun for us to figure out what kind of band we want to be going forward.”

Their new album, “Clouds,” featuring the same harmonies and heavy lyrics fans have come to expect, was announced last week. It will be fully released in July. They have plenty of shows lined up and might even play tracks from their forgotten album, too.

– Eric Russell

Related Headlines


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. 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.

filed under: