Notes From Away: Random Thoughts From Isolation

SOUTH BRISTOL POST OFFICE with insert from notice posted on entrance door. Photo by Tom Lamia.

By Tom Lamia

My nature is to be reclusive, so the experience that we all have had for the last two months—staying inside when possible, staying away from others, staying vigilant—has not been an intolerable ordeal for me. Human contact is necessary at times, though, as we have all found. The rules of my confinement do allow for the avoidance of starvation (a local supermarket does home delivery) and counsel long walks whenever hallucination threatens. More will be needed if isolation is to continue for the one to two years that some are now suggesting.

The greatest deprivations in the course of a typical day have been surprisingly mild: sending and receiving mail on those few occasions when only the US Postal Service will do (proof of mailing, parcel post, stamp purchases) and the total absence of the New York Yankees and their national pastime opponents on MLB.TV, my link to a past life.

Susan, my wife, and a continuing participant and supporter of WestView and the Charles Street Association, joined me here in South Bristol, Maine in the first week of March and her presence in the house continues. She did have to serve quarantine time, walled off in what was formerly a guest suite in the house. Who knew what evils she may have brought with her from the West Village? While in quarantine, she had to fend for herself in all household matters and could only speak when spoken to, because she could not know whether I was physically present on the other side of that wall. It was a kind of solitary confinement as penance for having come up here from our apartment on Horatio Street after it was clear that New York was erupting in COVID-19 infections. With the time that has passed since her arrival, concessions have been made to the rigor of our separation, so that we can now occupy the same space during dinner and Rachel Maddow.

When Susan arrived in early March, there were no cases in Maine. That changed. As of April 18 there were 827 cases and 29 deaths, with cases increasing by 30 or so each day. Most of these cases and deaths are in the two counties surrounding the city of Portland, but there have been outbreaks farther north, most recently in Waldo County, which covers the coastal areas of the Penobscot River outflow and extends inland into farm country. The city of Belfast (pop. 6,700) is the county seat. The back end of Waldo County adjoins the northeastern edge of Lincoln County. South Bristol is in Lincoln County. Of those 827 cases and 29 deaths, 12 cases and no deaths have been in Lincoln County. Until a week or so ago, Waldo County had a similar enviable record. Today it has 42 cases and five deaths, up from 30 cases and two deaths just days ago. Waldo County cases and deaths are now comparable to those of Maine’s most populous county, where Portland, its most populous city is located. On a per capita basis, the death rate in Waldo County exceeds that of any other Maine county by a good margin.

I mention all of this to make the obvious point that where people are scarce, so is the virus. It needs hosts to spread. Once a host is found, it seeks another and another. The kind of isolation that Susan and I are practicing here on a farm in South Bristol puts us out of harm’s way. The same can be said of our Lincoln County neighbors—with 12 cases total, the county infection rate is just 30 in 100,000, while in Cumberland County, where Portland sits (360 cases, 14 deaths), the rate is 124 cases and 5 deaths per 100,000. Waldo County now has rates of 107 and 13, respectively. What happened?

In Waldo County, where infections were few until ten days ago, there was a doubling and redoubling over just a few days. Why? A Belfast nursing home with just 47 beds now accounts for 38 infections and five deaths within that short time period, two deaths within the last two days. In addition to 28 infected patients, 10 staff members are infected. The virus sits on the perimeter of such populations and wastes no time in finding victims in such vulnerable populations.

That brings me to another point. Maine has a large number of summer homes. As I have written before, these homes are owned by the affluent from the metropolitan areas of, mostly, the northeastern United States. When those absentee owners arrive in the summer, Maine’s population swells with the financial and cultural elites. This year many arrived early, seeking refuge from a rampaging COVID-19.

In normal times, local residents see the summer people as a positive influence. They require many goods and services that local residents are willing and able to provide at rates far above what local demand alone would support. Such is the fear of this virus that arrivals of groups of New Yorkers to their summer homes in March, three months earlier than customary, has set off rebellious behavior among their neighbors. The hostility is, of course, driven by fear that arrivals from areas of high rates of infection are bringing the disease with them.

Island communities, such as North Haven, have sought to keep out all but local residents by suspending or altering ferry services. That has not worked as it is seen as an unreasonable restriction of property rights and the right to travel, but it was tried. Other communities have resorted to more direct action: blocking driveways and side roads and gathering in intimidating groups around summer homes that are being occupied for putative reasons of shelter from the virus rather than for sailing or sunning.

No such groups are lingering within stone-throwing distance of our modest year round farmhouse, but times they are a-changing, so I am looking out the front windows more often than usual.

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