Rick Savage, right, co-owner of Sunday River Brewing Co. in Bethel, is photographed inside the restaurant on Friday, Oct. 2, 2020. Savage said he wasn't surprised by the news that President Trump had tested positive for the coronavirus, and he said he still thought the threat of the virus in Maine had been overblown. Credit: Charles Eichacker / BDN

BETHEL, Maine — The news Friday that President Donald Trump had tested positive for COVID-19 didn’t come as a surprise in this rural part of the state, either to those who think the health threat has been overblown or to those who have taken it seriously since it first emerged in Maine last March.

At a time when Oxford County is now trying to blunt its own new flare up of the virus following an outbreak at the Rumford paper mill, the president’s diagnosis also didn’t appear as if it would change people’s impressions about how seriously to take the health threat.

“He’s been around a lot of people, and it really doesn’t surprise me, but at the same time, I think that he’ll handle it fine,” said Rick Savage, co-owner of Sunday River Brewing Co. who openly flouted Gov. Janet Mills’ prohibition on indoor dining when he reopened his restaurant on May 1 and who still wasn’t wearing a face mask inside his business on Friday morning.

“We’ve been open since May 1, and we’ve had zero incidents and we’ve served thousands and thousands of people,” said Savage, who belongs to a vocal group of Mainers who have challenged Mills’ virus restrictions in political rallies and in the courts.

Not all local business owners shared Savage’s skepticism toward the virus. Terry Love, a resident of North Conway, New Hampshire, who runs a ski and sports shop in Bethel, said that he takes the threat of COVID-19 seriously and feels strongly about the importance of face masks, handwashing and other measures meant to prevent its spread.

Love was actually planning to vote for Trump this fall until he saw Tuesday night’s debate with Joe Biden, when the incumbent’s performance finally turned him off. At that point, Trump was probably already infected with the virus.

“I knew he was going to get it,” Love said, referring to Trump’s frequent exposure to other people. “He thinks he’s entitled.”

The announcement that the president and First Lady Melania Trump had tested positive for the disease that has been responsible for more than 200,000 deaths in the U.S. came as state health officials have been sounding the alarm about rising infection rates in this rural county of just under 58,000 in western Maine.

The total number of infections that have been recorded among the county’s residents doubled in the last three weeks of September, from 75 to 152. It had previously taken more than two months for the county’s case numbers to double.

And in the past two weeks, Oxford County has recorded the state’s highest rate of new infections, according to the Maine CDC, with 9.49 new cases for every 10,000 residents — more than two-and-a-half times the statewide rate of 3.62.

The rising infection numbers have partly been driven by the outbreak at the ND Paper mill in Rumford, where 24 cases had been recorded as of Thursday and one employee had died.

In addition, a handful of schools in the county have reported cases with the new school year getting underway and temporarily shut down in-person instruction. Last week, the Maine Department of Education downgraded the county’s school safety rating to yellow, meaning Oxford is one of just two counties in the state where it’s not safe for school to be open full-time in person.

Even as state health officials highlight Oxford County as an area of growing concern, Savage downplayed the threat of the virus and questioned the extent of the paper mill outbreak.

There were at least a dozen people at his restaurant late Friday morning, and at least two other workers also were not wearing masks at one point. Most tables were spaced out, but some appeared to be less than 6 feet from each other.

“I never wore one, and I’m not wearing one,” Savage said when asked about his own lack of a face covering. “The Mills administration is running around the state making it look like there is still a COVID problem, so she can keep the state of emergency going. That’s exactly what she is doing.”

The divide in approaches to the virus was also on display farther down the road in Bethel, at two other food businesses on busy Route 2. Mask-wearing was the norm among staff and customers at the Good Food Store, a grocer of natural and organic foods.

Emma Hoffman and Jake Smith, Vermont residents who were traveling through Maine, had not even heard the news that Trump caught the coronavirus until a reporter approached them outside the Good Food Store, where they had stopped for lunch.

Both of them said they fully support wearing face masks and other measures to protect the public health. While they were not shocked by Trump’s new infection, they expressed hope that it might encourage him and his supporters to take the virus more seriously.

“I’m curious to see if his perspective changes,” Smith said.

But at the nearby Mallard Mart convenience store and gas station, more than a dozen customers entered and left the store without a mask during a 20-minute stretch in the early afternoon.

A customer leaves Mallard Mart in Bethel on Oct. 2, 2020. Customers said they weren’t surprised by the news that President Donald Trump had tested positive for the coronavirus. They didn’t expect the news would change their behavior toward the virus. Credit: Charles Eichacker | BDN

Staff who were gathered behind the counter also weren’t wearing masks, but had them hanging around their necks. There was a clear plastic shield over the counter that was meant to separate them from customers, and a manager said the workers donned their face coverings when they walked out onto the floor.

At least one customer, Randy Palmer of Peru, was not persuaded of the magnitude of the coronavirus health threat by the news of Trump’s infection. He plans to vote for the incumbent this fall, he said while refueling his truck.

“As far as I’m concerned, it’s no different from any other virus,” Palmer said.

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