This small island community in Maine has rallied to keep the coronavirus at bay


CLIFF ISLAND, Maine – At different times, a taxi met visitors at the wharf to take them to any destination on the dirt roads of this H-shaped island.

Few visitors come now. But the taxi is still parked on the road with its rear window displaying a simple message in bold yellow letters: “Sorry! No taxi service due to COVID-19.

It’s one of the most immediately visible ways that life has changed on Casco Bay Island which is part of Maine’s largest city, but it’s a distant last ferry stop from the mainland. Cliff Island has yet to see a confirmed case of the coronavirus in nearly a year since the pandemic arrived in Maine, infecting more than 45,000 statewide and more than 3,700 in Portland.

It’s a distinction few others can brag about and one that Cliff Island’s roughly 45 residents want to keep year round. North Haven, which briefly tried to ban outside visitors at the start of the pandemic, saw 15 cases in a week last fall. Swans Island, the lobster fishing village off the Blue Hill Peninsula with a population of around 320, saw its first confirmed case just a few weeks ago.

The small population is a factor that has helped some island communities avoid the worst of the virus so far. But Cliff Island’s success also reflects the strength of residents’ collective decisions to prioritize public and community health efforts that have enabled the most vulnerable islanders to avoid their generally routine trips to the mainland while vital services are in need. continued.

Clockwise from left: A Casco Bay Lines employee brings the ramp onto the ferry as it stopped at Cliff Island on March 4; Entrance to Cliff Island with posted coronavirus guidelines; The Casco Bay Lines ferry approaches the island; The Casco Bay Lines ferry is preparing to depart from Cliff Island. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN

“We were squatting here,” said Cheryl Crowley, a longtime Cliff Island resident, active in several initiatives to support the island’s people year round.

The population of Cliff Island, like that of Maine as a whole, is aging. Taxi driver Chester Pettengill, who is also the guardian of the one-class school with only three students and who takes the ferry every day to carry mail from the dock to the post office, is 80 years old. He was “the inspiration” for other Islanders to take the virus seriously, Crowley said.

Some towns in Maine have seen an influx of visitors with the onset of the pandemic last spring, but residents of Cliff Island have written letters to longtime summer vacationers asking them to delay their trips to minimize the risk. Between fewer visitors and trips to the mainland, passenger revenue to Cliff Island last year fell 29% through November, according to Casco Bay Lines, which operates ferries to the seven islands off Portland. Cliff Island is one of two main islands in the harbor – Great Diamond Island being the other – which has not recorded any cases of the virus.

The seasonal Cliff Island Store is the only business on the island, with residents typically heading to the mainland for groceries and other necessities. To deter this, Crowley, along with her husband and daughters, are using a Google spreadsheet to track requests. There are printed forms for residents who do not use a computer to write their orders by hand.

They worked with Hope MacVane, the owner of the seasonal store, to order wholesale from distributors in the Portland area, which ferry groceries to the island. Crowley and her daughters dispatch them to the community center, allowing families to retrieve them in a socially distanced manner. The volume was highest at the start of the pandemic, but the effort continues.

MacVane never officially reopened the island store last summer. The company typically serves islanders as well as tourists who stop on a ferry or stay longer in a rental home. Not wanting to cheer on the crowds, MacVane expanded grocery deliveries to an online store in the summer, making it possible to process orders faster. The community was supportive.

Clockwise from left: Residents walk one of Cliff Island’s dirt roads on March 4. There are no paved roads on the H-shaped island; The coastline of Cliff Island is pictured; Longtime Cliff Island resident Cheryl Crowley walks around the island in an H shape. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN

“One of our big goals was how to keep us safe, but also how to keep the islanders safe? ” she said. “And part of the opening would mean we would have people coming to the public platform to go up to the store.”

As the pandemic lingered until the fall, precautions against the virus were beneficial for its younger residents. Cliff Island and Peaks Island Elementary Schools are the only two schools in town that have been open for in-person learning five days a week since September.

“The benefits are exponential,” said Kelly Hasson, the education manager for both schools.

In-person learning and the lack of confirmed cases always come with health precautions. Schools on the island closed like all others in March of last year, then upgraded their ventilation systems over the summer before students returned. On Cliff Island, teacher Jenny Baum set up tables outside last fall, allowing students to learn outdoors for several months before the cold forced them to return to school to class. unique.

Clockwise from left: Teacher Jenny Baum (right) talks about teaching at Cliff Island as her students approach her; Students at Cliff Island School search for items such as birch bark, feathers and lichens outside their one-room school on March 4; Grade 1 Fiona Anderson (left) and Grade 3 Chloe Blonquist search for various objects outside during a school activity; Grade 4 student Edward Anderson climbs a tree at the end of the school day. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN

Although the temperature barely reached 20 degrees on a sunny Thursday, the three students at the school spent the last half hour of their day on a “treasure hunt” for lichen, birch bark and other natural objects found around the school. Engaging with the island, Baum said, is helping to make up for some of the loss of in-person connection due to the pandemic.

Students no longer take a ferry to nearby Long Island Elementary School twice a week and art classes are delivered by Zoom rather than having a visit from a mainland teacher. They wrote letters to the island’s veterans for Veterans Day and made evergreen sprays for winter residents for Christmas.

Baum, from New York and in her third year of teaching at Cliff Island, says she feels “very lucky” to teach here during the pandemic. She leaves sparingly, not wanting to risk her health or that of her students.

Many of Cliff Island’s older residents have also rarely left. But some recently took the ferry to Long Island for their first COVID-19 vaccines. After Maine expanded eligibility to people aged 60 and over, Crowley was busy again, helping eligible residents find appointments.

MacVane, who is from the island but now lives on the mainland and works as a teacher most of the year, has not returned to Cliff Island since the store closed last fall. Her parents still live there, but the family have tried to avoid large gatherings due to the pandemic.

She misses him, following the cameras live until she can return.

“It’s a special place,” she said. “He holds a special place in so many hearts. “

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