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Former University of Maine professor Ed Brazee co-founded a company called BoomerTECH Adventures in 2015 with the goal of helping Mainers from the baby-boom generation get more comfortable with the internet and using the latest technology.
Little did he know that in March 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic struck, his skills in teaching clients how to video chat or pay their bills online would become a crucial tool in helping people figure out how to navigate their new socially distant reality.
“It went from something where people could learn on their own time, to ‘Oh boy, I’d better figure this out right now,’” said Brazee, an Orono resident who retired in 2014 as a professor of education at UMaine. “I think people have realized that this is how it’s going to be for a long time, and they’d need to learn how to do things online, and quickly.”
Brazee and his colleagues at BoomerTECH have spent the past four months working with people from all over the state, getting them accustomed to using Zoom, ordering groceries online, paying municipal bills, making telemedicine appointments and more.
As more of life has shifted online during the pandemic, the struggle for many has been a lack of internet access or the lack of a computer or smartphone. Some 24,000 students, for example, were found this spring to lack the internet access they needed to participate in classes. As of 2017, 10.3 percent of Maine households — or more than 55,000 — didn’t have a computer or smartphone, and 17.3 percent lacked an internet connection, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.
Brazee and his colleagues have been focused on the situation in which many older Mainers might find themselves, struggling not just with doing more online, but with knowing how to use the technology in the first place.
One common problem Brazee has encountered was that seniors had laptops or desktop computers, but that the machines were too old to run programs such as Zoom. If they didn’t have family or friends to help them, they often didn’t know where to start in upgrading their devices — especially in the first few months of the pandemic, when many stores were closed, Brazee said.
“Folks in this age bracket are the most vulnerable to the virus, so having a phone or a tablet might suddenly be their main connection to the outside world,” he said. “And for seniors in particular, if they didn’t have that device in the first place, or they have an old, outdated one, that makes it that much more difficult.”
But faced with the necessity of doing more online, Brazee said, seniors have figured it out even when help wasn’t immediately available, such as earlier in the pandemic, when Brazee and his team were overwhelmed by requests for help and couldn’t respond to some questions immediately.
“People aren’t just throwing up their hands if they can’t figure it out,” he said.
It’s not only individuals who have had to rapidly adapt technologically during the pandemic. About 30 percent of Maine’s more than 400 cities and towns don’t have websites, according to the Maine Municipal Association. But towns and cities quickly had to start offering more services, such as the ability to renew car registrations, make tax and utility payments and holding municipal meetings, online.
Even in a city that offers a wide range of services online, such as Bangor, it’s still a struggle to encourage residents to use the services.
There are still 7,000 overdue car registrations in Bangor as of this month, said City Manager Cathy Conlow, although residents have been able to renew their car registrations online for years. She remains concerned about those in Bangor who don’t have reliable access to the internet — especially seniors who have always done their city business in person.
“It worries me. How do we stay connected to our senior population when there’s a big digital divide?” Conlow said. “The pandemic has really shown us where all the holes are. If you don’t have the internet, it’s like not having electricity or sewer. It’s not optional, at this point.”
With municipal meetings, town and city governments had to move them online, often to Zoom, almost overnight.
“It was almost a crisis, because right as we were stepping into town meeting season, we simply could not have people attend those in person,” said Eric Conrad, director of communication and education services for the Maine Municipal Association. “Not to mention the struggle to move council meetings online. It was a major transition to make, in not a lot of time.”
To that end, the Maine Municipal Association has held a number of trainings to help towns learn new technology, and it has encouraged towns that already have a robust online presence or a staff member who deals with I.T. to work with towns that do not.
“Smaller towns are learning from their larger counterparts,” Conrad said.
Once people overcome the technological hurdle, having town and city meetings online may actually increase citizen participation in government, rather than lessen it, said Conrad and Conlow. Bangor, for example, has seen an increase in public participation in Zoom meetings over the past month or two, and a significant increase in the number of people who watch meetings over Facebook, said Zeth Lundy, the city’s public information officer.
“You might not be able to come to a council meeting in person,” Conlow said. “But you could tune into Zoom and participate from home. That’s a good thing.”
The same phenomenon might hold true for town meetings.
“You might only get 60 people at a town meeting sometimes, for whatever reason. But if you can attend virtually, you could have 400 people show up,” Conrad said. “There are some things coming out of this that might not be such a bad thing.”