Vinalhaven officials are pushing back on vigilante actions during COVID-19 pandemic. Credit: Bangor Daily News

Click here for the latest coronavirus news, which the BDN has made free for the public. You can support this mission by purchasing a digital subscription.

ROCKLAND, Maine ― Over the weekend, the island of Vinalhaven made national news when a small group of residents allegedly tried to force a group of out-of-staters to quarantine by cutting a tree down and blocking their driveway.

But officials on Vinalhaven ― an island located less than 10 miles from Rockland and accessible by ferry ― say the incident isn’t representative of what’s happening on the island as the tight-knit community of about 1,000 year-round residents has come together during the global COVID-19 pandemic.

[Our COVID-19 tracker contains the most recent information on Maine cases by county]

“Our team felt similarly that what was going around nationally [on the news about the Vinalhaven incident] wasn’t representative of the island as a whole and who we are as a community. To have those stories out there at a time like this only incites fear. We’re trying to comfort people to some extent and come together as a community,” Vinalhaven Town Manager Andrew Dorr said Tuesday.

Police were called to the island Friday afternoon after receiving a report that three out of state residents who’d been living on Vinalhaven for a month were apparently being forced to quarantine by a group of people with guns.

An initial report from the sheriff’s office stated that the group of people had guns, but that was not included in a more thorough statement released late Saturday night. The sheriff’s office did not immediately respond to a question regarding this discrepancy.

After the cable went out at their residence, one of the three individuals went to inspect the problem, only to find that a tree had been cut down and dragged across the roadway leading to the house, according to the Knox County Sheriff’s Office. It is not clear if the cable outage had to do with the downed tree.

“While investigating the downed tree, a neighbor started yelling at him and a group of people showed up and began to gather around. Believing the group may be there to harm him, [he] fled to his residence and told his roommates what he had found,” according to a statement from the Knox County Sheriff’s Office. “The trio decided to stay put in the residence, utilized a VHF radio to hail the Coast Guard for assistance, they had no other means of communication, and utilized their drone to keep an eye on the group until law enforcement could arrive to help them.”

Police were unable to identify or locate the group of people who cut down the tree and allegedly yelled at the out-of-state resident; however, they are still investigating the incident. They learned there was a belief by some island residents that the individuals needed to be quarantined because they came from out of state and could have COVID-19.

Deputies learned that the trio had been residing on Vinalhaven for about 30 days, meaning they have been on the island prior to the state issuing any guidance surrounding travel restrictions. None have any symptoms consistent with COVID-19, according to the sheriff’s office.

While the incident gained national attention, Vinalhaven officials are stressing that this was an isolated incident and that there is zero tolerance for vigilante actions on the island.

“Misinformation coupled with fear led to an unfortunate incident led by one or two people. Emotions are running high throughout the nation, but on Vinalhaven the response to the COVID-19 pandemic is, for most people, a thoughtful, rational approach to slowing its progress and caring for its people, with no tolerance for vigilante action,” a statement from town officials on Monday night stated.

With islands having extremely limited medical resources, the thought of non-residents traveling to the island has created concerns that if an outbreak were to happen, island communities would be ill-prepared to handle it.

Earlier this month, the neighboring island of North Haven attempted to bar non-residents from traveling to the island. After learning that only the governor has the authority to restrict travel, town officials rescinded the travel ban.

Vinalhaven has not attempted to restrict travel, but in accordance with recommendations from the state, officials are asking that any seasonal residents returning to the island quarantine for two weeks.

While the actions by a small group of residents got the most attention, Dorr said most islanders are coming together in a positive way during the pandemic. The school is making breakfast and lunch deliveries for children. Community organizations, such as churches, are also delivering meals to seniors. A pay it forward fund has also been started at the island’s grocery store to help those who can’t pay for their food.

“The town response to the pandemic has been one full of cooperation and generous outreach to neighbors,” according to the statement from Vinalhaven officials.

In the wake of Friday’s incident, the Knox County Sheriff’s Office said that whether an individual is a Maine resident or not, they have the right to free movement and anyone who tries to infringe on that right is potentially violating the law.

“We want everyone to be informed about COVID-19 and the rules around it. We also want everyone to be safe and not overreact in this time of uncertainty as it could end poorly,” the sheriff said in his statement.