Richard Michaud, an employee of Seider's Variety and Redemption Center in Hodgdon, sorts through dropped off bottles while wearing a mask and gloves. Studies have shown the virus can live on plastic and stainless steel surfaces for up to three days. Credit: Alexander MacDougall | Houlton Pioneer Times

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HOULTON, Maine — Officially, bottle redemption centers, as with other trash collection services, are classified as essential businesses to remain open during the COVID-19 pandemic in Maine. But operating them while protecting the health and safety of employees from the virus is another matter.

While customers can be protected by doing drop-offs of their empty cans and bottles, employees of the centers must still manage the merchandise, which may have remnants of the virus on them. A study done at the University of California at Los Angeles has shown that the virus can live for up to three days on plastic and stainless steel — the precise materials that many bottles and cans are made out of.

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

Kent Good is the owner of Florence Ave. Redemption as well as the neighboring Thirsty Dawg liquor store in Houlton. While he has kept his liquor store open, he decided that operating the redemption center during a pandemic was too much of a risk and closed it down.

“To me it’s like pouring gas on a fire,” Good said. “If you don’t have to do it, don’t do it.”

The other redemption center locations in the Houlton area — Graham’s Redemption Center and Seider’s Variety — closed temporarily once the first case of COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus, was announced in Aroostook County, but have since reopened. Their employees work with face masks and gloves and utilize drop-off and pickup services.

Seider’s has also closed its variety store in order to reduce social contact.

In other parts of the state, services like CLYNK redemption centers at select Hannaford locations are asking people with recently filled bags to wait three days until dropping them off. Though the service is voluntary, people are asked to mark bags that have been kept for more than the allotted time for the virus to wear off, so that plant employees can differentiate them.

“It gives some of our folks peace of mind,” said Bridget O’Brien, a spokesperson for CLYNK. “It’s gotten mass adoption, and we’ve had a lot of our customers reach out and thank us for that.”

While Good doesn’t criticize others for remaining open, and despite him taking a big financial hit by keeping his closed, he still feels shutting down the redemption center for now was the best choice to make.

“This was my decision, what I thought was for the better good of our community,” he said. “Because the safety of my family, the safety of my customers, and my employees and the community at large is my biggest concern.”

With bottle redemption now limited, other members of the community are looking to help deal with disposable empties. The Houlton Humane Society, a no-kill animal shelter, has been accepting donations in the form of empty bottles, which people can leave in an empty outdoor dog kennel that has been reserved for bottle collection.

“We are going to leave them in the air for 14 days, then we will count them and take them to the redemption centers,” said Cathy Virgie, executive director for the Houlton Humane Society. “There’s no room for them in people’s homes, and we had to cancel a lot of our fundraisers, so it’s kind of a win-win for us.”

Watch: What you need to know about handwashing during coronavirus

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