By Roger Berle and Donna Wiegle
As co-chairs of the Maine Islands Coalition (MIC), we feel the need to collaboratively present our perspective on how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting our island communities. And that is this: the pandemic has already landed on our islands, and we now wonder what we will we do if and when our 2020 summer visitors also descend upon us.
Since 2003, the MIC, a collaboration of the 15 unbridged Maine island communities, has convened quarterly meetings to address issues either in common or unique to one island. Staff from the Rockland-based nonprofit Island Institute provide support for the group.
Since the onset of the virus, the MIC has met more frequently, but now via Zoom. We invite municipal leaders, state legislators, and staff from our congressional delegation. Special guests have included the director of the Maine Office of Tourism, who spoke about visitor and lodging issues, as well as members of the media about our concerns with the prospective seasonal arrival of residents and guests.
Each island, no matter how small, depends in large part on tourism and tax dollars from summer residents and guests to keep its economy going. Normally, the influx of summer residents, renters, and day-trippers can be challenging enough to manage, but facing a summer season without this segment of our normal population during the pandemic brings many unknowns.
Islanders feel they live in one of the safest places to weather a pandemic. But how safe will it be when summer residents begin to return en masse when they want to escape their own COVID-active communities?
Swan’s Island lies Down East, far from “city” access. Cliff Island, in Casco Bay, has easy ferry access to Portland. But in this moment, mainland access presents as many challenges as benefits for each of these semi-remote communities.
Both islands have already seen a reduction in ferry runs due to low ridership. Both are trying to follow Gov. Mills’ “Stay Safer at Home” mandate. Both islands’ residents avoid mainland trips as much as possible to minimize exposure to or importing of the virus.
On Swan’s Island, the small store is staying supplied, but as the population expands, it will be harder to keep up with demand. Swan’s Island increases from about 375 year-round residents to over 1,000 during the summer. Along with the store, EMS service, the health center, and the ferry, which all have limited capabilities, are stretched to near capacity. Safely providing for a significant increase in population during the pandemic seems daunting.
Cliff Island currently has about 40 residents and would normally swell seasonally to over 200. The store operates in summer only. There is a wellness center and a handful of EMS personnel, but they are not allowed to assist on an emergency call until the city of Portland’s fireboat arrives with its own EMTs. Everyone is on edge, even while being both conscious of and conscientious about risking others’ health.
We both certainly understand summer residents wanting to come to the islands they love—and to homes they own—to escape the stay-at-home mandates where they live, in states to the south. While we are sure that no one wants to be the person who brings the virus to an island, it has already happened; cases have already appeared on both Peaks Island and Vinalhaven.
New arrivals will be expected both to make caretaker pre-arrangements and to arrive with a minimum of 14 days of supplies so they can self-quarantine. After that, they will be expected to follow whatever guidelines are in place—with masks and distancing.
The summer and winter segments of our communities indisputably value and depend upon each other. But, while each of our islands looks forward to our becoming one winter-summer community again, the best thing one can do as a summer resident of, or visitor to, our islands is to stay away—and we ardently hope that that’s only for now—until it is safe for all of us to be together and actively, resiliently supporting each other once again.
We will heartfully thank you for that.
Donna Wiegle lives on Swan’s Island and Roger Berle lives seasonally on Cliff Island, and both serve as co-chairs of the Maine Islands Coalition. Wiegle serves on the Island Institute’s board of trustees.