As the coronavirus spreads, people can’t be blamed for wanting an island hideout. But one island in Maine has made it clear: Visitors are not welcome.
The North Haven Select Board voted Sunday to ban visitors and seasonal residents immediately to prevent the spread of the coronavirus to the Penobscot Bay island, where there have been no cases yet.
“People who do not reside on the island full-time may not travel to the island due to the significant increase in risk associated with the transmission of COVID-19,” the order states.
Exempted from the order is travel for “essential purposes” — that includes health care providers, the order said.
Maine has 15 islands that are reachable only by boat or airplane and are inhabited year-round, and so far North Haven is the only one to resort to such a drastic measure to protect islanders from the virus, said Rob Snyder from the Island Institute.
“North Haven’s actions speak for themselves. Other islands are considering similar actions,” he said. “Maine’s islands are some of the oldest communities in the state, and their health response resources are already stressed.”
But, he added, it’s not surprising that out-of-state residents who spend summers on the island might want to escape to a place where they feel safe. “Many people consider the islands home, whether they are residents or not, so these actions have the potential to undermine the broader community,” he said.
The Mills administration is reviewing the island town’s order, said Scott Ogden, spokesman for Maine Gov. Janet Mills.
North Haven, which has an estimated year-round population of about 375, held its annual town meeting over the weekend and residents expressed worries about seasonal residents spreading the new coronavirus.
The virus that has stricken tens of thousands around the globe causes only mild symptoms for the majority of the people who become infected but can be deadly for some, especially older adults and people with certain health conditions such as respiratory illness.
Town Clerk Kathleen Macy said most residents are supportive of the strict policy. The town has an older population, and it’s so small that it could be overwhelmed if people become sick. The town has only one medical clinic, and the emergency medical technicians are all volunteers.
“The board just felt like we’re in a precarious situation here, perhaps a little bit more vulnerable than other places,” she said.
Maine Ferry Service was operating its normal schedule Monday to the island. And there was no effort to enforce the ban on visitors.
Ferry captain Abe Baggins said he feels it’s reasonable for the islanders to take action to slow the spread of the virus.
He recently transported some New Yorkers to the island and understands their desire for refuge. “They see North Haven as a safe spot. But once the virus gets to the island, it’s going to feel like a prison. It will spread like wildfire on the island,” he said.
Josh Beverage, a fisherman, questions whether the Select Board went too far. But he understands the goal is to protect local residents at a time when people are frightened about the virus.
“It seems like a lot of panic coming from all angles,” he said on the ferry while returning from the mainland with groceries.
The island’s most famous resident is Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, who was recovering from hip surgery on the mainland and had not seen the order, spokeswoman Victoria Bonney said Monday.
Nearby Vinalhaven Island, Maine’s most heavily populated offshore island, has no plans to enact a similar ban on nonresidents, but “I’m sure most towns have thought about it,” said Town Manager Andrew Dorr.
On North Haven, the town offices were flooded with calls. Most people were supportive of the unprecedented measures to protect the island, Macy said.
“Most people are understanding and glad that we’ve done this,” she said. “It’s uncharted territory for all of us here.”