A woman in a mask puts her bag in her car in front of the sign at Presque Isle's Walmart on Wednesday. Credit: David Marino Jr. / Presque Isle Star-Herald

The BDN is making the most crucial coverage of the coronavirus pandemic and its economic impact in Maine free for all readers. Click here for all coronavirus stories. You can join others committed to safeguarding this vital public service by purchasing a subscription or donating directly to the newsroom.

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Walmart in Presque Isle — the busiest store in Aroostook County — has stood out for its uncovered display of faces coming from around The County to shop at the superstore since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.

The maskless trend seemed to accelerate during the summer, but that will soon change. Presque Isle’s Walmart announced Wednesday that face coverings shielding the nose and mouth would be required for all customers. The only exceptions are young children and people with certain medical conditions.

The announcement came on the same day Gov. Janet Mills issued an executive order that requires businesses to enforce mask-wearing in retail spaces in several of Maine’s most populous counties and cities.

While Mills had previously issued executive orders requiring face coverings in several parts of Maine, many businesses chose not to enforce them. By strengthening her policy, she hoped to make a mask requirement part of the checklist of conditions businesses needed to meet to reopen.

While Presque Isle is not included in the executive order, a Walmart employee said the mask policy was instituted because of Mills’ new policy and that Walmart corporate leadership made the decision to comply, rather than local store management.

There was a swift reaction from people across The County, who let Walmart know how they felt in the comments section of the local Walmart’s Facebook post about the change. Many were upset or angry about the store instituting a mask requirement in a location that’s had few cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus.

There have been 24 COVID-19 cases in all of Aroostook County as of Thursday, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Erin McGowan of Ashland said wearing a mask should be a personal choice. For those who weren’t afraid of getting the virus, coverings made little sense. On Wednesday, she did a curbside pickup order because of the new policy.

“It’s not right to tell someone to wear a mask, or you cannot shop there,” McGowan said.

Others defended Walmart’s policy and said it would help to stop the potential spread of COVID-19 in The County.

Sarah Hitchcock of Presque Isle lamented masks’ politicization when health experts were united in saying it was a simple way to stop the virus’ spread.

Apart from masks, people in Walmart regularly failed to follow social distancing guidelines, Hitchcock said. The mask is an excellent way to reduce the risk of spread, especially from people infected by the virus who are asymptomatic, she said.

“It can be hard to avoid [people not following social distancing] if you work there or are just trying to do your shopping. They reach around you in aisles to grab things off the shelf and walk in the opposite directions,” Hitchcock said, referring to the markers indicating one-way aisles.

The new mask policy is not the first time Presque Isle’s Walmart has changed its policies because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Employees restricted entry to no more than 100 people at a time — causing long lines to form on either side of the building — until mid-June when that number shifted to around 900 people.

Stores across Presque Isle have rarely enforced mask-wearing since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, even when they list that requirement on the front door.

Employees at several of the busiest shops in Presque Isle said masks were not currently required for entry. Several said that policy could change, referencing Walmart’s new policy.

An employee at J.C. Penney said that masks weren’t mandatory for entry, while someone from Dollar Tree said masks were recommended but not required to enter the store.

An employee at Shop ‘n Save Supermarket said masks weren’t required but that could change, while one at Lowe’s Home Improvement said masks weren’t mandatory at the moment.