There are many things quintessentially Boothbay region, but few more so than a bustling footbridge and packed Squirrel Island parking lot on a balmy July afternoon. That might be a different picture this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic upheaval. Squirrel Island harbormaster and constable Rob Hopkins said as Memorial Day Weekend wanes, the pandemic has clearly affected the small community. And comments from summer residents do not paint a great picture for the upcoming season.
“It's very, very quiet compared to previous years. We're way down this weekend … This is my 31st year, so I've got a pretty good handle on numbers … Out of 107 cottages, probably 30 of those typically rent for a good part of the summer. That's a lot of people that looks like aren't going to come.”
Many Zoom meetings with islanders living around the country point up the question of how to approach Gov. Janet Mills’ orders for all out-of-state visitors to quarantine for 14 days after arrival in Maine. Hopkins said the rules are laid out for everyone with no comments or variations. “We just say this is what the rule is. I have found both in the Harbor and in Southport and from the few people who have come to Squirrel already, it seems like everybody just naturally now stands apart from each other, puts a mask on if they need to be closer together …”
Longtime summer resident Nancy Foss said it was still every bit as important to make it to the island this year. Foss’s great-great grandmother bought the home in 1895, so summer on the island was also important to her father, grandfather and his father.
Having self-quarantined since mid-February in her Marblehead, Massachusetts home, Foss said she knew it was safe for her to come, but not as in years past when she would usually come twice in May just to bring her essentials in manageable loads. Due to the mandatory quarantine, she knew she would have to make the trip only once.
“It was problematic coming up here, not easy to do … No one would know if I left the island the next day and went home again and came back and brought another load of stuff, but it's still not the right thing to do … I said, you know, 'I just gotta get up there and stay as long as I can.'”
Similarly, Susan Newbury has been living her summers on the island since 1950, but this year she plans on delaying her stay until July. “Our cottage is open, but Maine doesn't really want us there yet, so I will be waiting to go. I will not be staying away all summer. I love Boothbay Harbor, I love obviously Squirrel, and I will be there this summer.”
Newbury said she understands Maine's approach since the threat of coronavirus came later here than in her home state of Connecticut. She is optimistic July in Maine will look a bit similar to the Nutmeg State right now. “Connecticut has opened up quite a bit. Of course we were hit sooner than Maine, but we're doing fine, we even have all our restaurants open for outdoor seating, now … We're safe, we wash our hands, we wear our masks, we don't just go out for the heck of it. Social distancing is the norm, but you can still enjoy beautiful Maine and stick to those standards. It is so beautiful and I feel very, very badly because I know a lot of people aren't coming up and I know that's really going to hurt the region.”
Freeport winter resident Sally Thomas said coming out to the island is very easy, but even though she is not an out-of-stater, she is being respectful and cautious as someone coming into the region.
“Being nearby makes coming to the Midcoast an option,” said Thomas. “We can do it responsibly avoiding the quarantine, but also our plan is to (stay put) when we're on Squirrel Island, to be good citizens … I think everybody is being responsible about coming to the region.”
Thomas has been doing her grocery shopping at her home market in Yarmouth to make less of an impact on the Boothbay Harbor Hannaford's. Patronizing the region is important to her, but so is caution. “We want to be part of the solution and it seems like a delicate balance. We want to show our support for everything here.”
Boothbay Harbor native and Squirrel Island resident Richard Hallinan said it really has been a slow start to the season with an approximate 25% capacity in the cottages for Memorial Day Weekend when it would normally be around 80%. Many are staying away and waiting to see if things change, but several families have said they are not coming at all this year. Most who have decided to come to the island have stuck to the rules very seriously, Hallinan continued.
“I know some people from Florida who drove straight through, slept in the car, got on the boat and Lisa did their shopping for them and made them some meals. They're committed to the two-week quarantine. So, there are several people (quarantining) and there are some who are just out here for the weekend.”
Everyone has taken social distancing and the governor’s orders seriously, since there is room to keep a distance and still enjoy the island, Hopkins said. While the morning and afternoon children's recreation program will not be held this year, the Tea Shop will be open for take-out and possibly deck seating later this summer.
Said Hopkins, “I carried on preparing the island as if the virus wasn't a problem and that everything would be functioning. I didn't dare hold back in case all of a sudden everything fell right into place and everybody comes rushing up, so whatever happens, we are ready to go.”