By Tom Lamia
It has been a strange summer in Maine. No stranger, perhaps, than yours in the West Village, but maybe a different kind of strange. I have spoken in this column before about the dependence of Maine’s economy on summer visitors. It is a well-known characteristic of life in Maine, whether for “Mainers” (those who are not “from away”) or year-round residents like me, that we reflexively withdraw from active life during the four-month season of summer visitors. That season, a four-month stretch from June through September, is one of two seasons unofficially recognized among Mainers—the other being the eight months of winter when we have Maine to ourselves. Winter is devoted to stoking the wood stove and hoping the generator has enough propane to keep the lights on and the pump pushing hot water through the heating system while waiting for the return of summer visitors.
This year, of course, is different. As news of the coronavirus filtered past the borders of New York and Massachusetts, and began to enter roadside conversations among Mainers and their neighbors from away (me), a particular phenomenon not heretofore known on the coast of Maine emerged. This phenomenon was new, but unsurprising, even expected. In its earliest form it was recognized as a logical and rational result of the catastrophe that was being described on national news programs. Summer visitors were going to start to arrive at any moment, it was said, even with snow on the ground. Reports from island communities and yachting enclaves told the tale of New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and other urban centers being abandoned by coronavirus-sensitive “canaries” seeking shelter in Maine where there was no virus. The canaries’ escape from peril, I was told, was to be facilitated by the happy circumstance of unoccupied summer homes in spacious, picturesque locations. Most of these homes were not winterized, but how cold could it be in March? I will tell you. My first visit to Maine was in May of 1968 to an island in the Damariscotta River where my future bride and I clung together close to a fireplace, the only source of heat, and learned the value of insulation (of which there was none). My boyhood (as I like to think of it) was spent in Southern California. Suppress your laughter; mid-winter in Los Angeles is cold enough to have forced my college fraternity house roommate (from Syracuse) to flee to warmer quarters one night in January when I left the window open. A few nights on that island tested my hardiness for a Maine spring.
Those canaries did come, arriving intermittently but in ever-greater numbers from March to June. The presence of cars in driveways and bodies at the supermarket confirmed the invasion. Trepidation bordering in a few cases on outright hostility carried the message that Maine and Mainers were not yet ready for their presence. Cottages had not been made ready, boats were still ashore in their cradles awaiting scraping and painting, restaurants and bars were closed, gift shops were shut. Most disturbing of all, Mainers were terrified of getting close enough to these early birds to happily provide needed income-producing services. Moreover, Governor Mills and her advisory council had decreed, among other restrictions, that visitors must quarantine for 14 days after arrival. What good, after all, is a summer visitor who cannot move among us and make our economy hum?
Summer cottages, heated only by fireplaces did serve as a temporary escape from the infection zones, and the quarantine requirement has now been lifted for visitors from New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. The familiar signs of a summer season are now with us—normalized by concessions to the virus. Maine is near the bottom of the list of states with COVID-19 cases and deaths. Lobsters are plentiful and cheap. The weather is fine. The sailing, and the drinks and conversation at the end of the day, are at their traditional high levels. There will be a summer visitor season this year, however moderated, and all are happy, Mainers and visitors alike. Soon enough the visitors will be back home, where they might now feel safer, and Mainers will have the place to themselves for eight months.
ARRIVED IN MARCH and ready for summer. Photo credit: Susan Lamia.