The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the lives of Mainers — for some a little, for others a lot — since it began in the middle of March.
In the early days of the pandemic, there was little clear information and guidance about the brand-new disease. In response, many sanitized their groceries, stocked up on flour, yeast and toilet paper and cleaned everything in sight. As the months have worn on and the science and understanding of the disease has evolved, some of those things have diminished.
Yet the coronavirus continues to cast its shadow over everything, including how we socialize, where we travel, whether we dine out, how we educate our children, how we worship, how and where we work, how we shop for groceries.
Everything is different.
“It’s just layers and layers of little things. It’s such a domino effect. It affects literally every part of your life,” Joshua Parkhurst, 27, of Old Town said. “This is a life-changing thing. The way things are done is just going to be different now. There’s no going back to the way things were before.”
Many of the ordinary things he used to do — go to the gym in the morning and go out with friends on the weekends to restaurants or bars, for instance — have become memories, in part because he is a stickler about following the guidance of health authorities in order to protect himself and his family.
Parkhurst works in a bank, helping people prepare for retirement. Although his job hasn’t changed, the way he performs it has. He spends much of his time trying to work with customers over the phone, and when they need to meet in person, there is a Plexiglas shield between them.
Even getting laundry done has posed issues. He used to go to the local laundromat. But because of the national coin shortage sparked by the pandemic, and his own safety concerns, he had to buy a portable washing machine that he hooked up to his apartment sink.
Of course, there are larger considerations. When his mother had open heart surgery during the pandemic, only one visitor could see her each day, which was hard on their family. And Parkhurst, who loves talking to people and hearing their stories, has spent more time alone than he would like. He’s trying to make the best of that.
“This is definitely a time to do self-reflection and try to improve,” he said. “I think I’m coming out of this a better person.”
A hard season
Even in an ordinary year, November can be challenging with the onset of colder weather and longer nights. This year, with its bitter political battles, and the current rise in COVID-19 cases across the state, it can feel like too much.
In mid-October, Nirav Shah, the director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, told Scientific American he thought otherwise. Maine’s COVID-19 cases are increasing now, but the state has held on to impressively low numbers for months.
“The people in this state believe in science,” Shah said in the Scientific American interview. “We know from cell-phone-tracking data that when we asked them to stay home, they did. When we asked them to wear masks, they did. Not everyone, of course, but most. They took heed of public health folks, took our advice to heart. When I chat with my colleagues in other states — Ohio, Michigan — I hear things are entirely different.”
That’s what most readers told the BDN in a recent query. Among the 80 people who responded to questions about their habits since the pandemic began, most indicated they are still taking precautions.
“We have not gone to a restaurant since February and have no intention to,” a Penobscot County man said.
“Always [wear a mask] in public. Have not been indoors with anyone other than my spouse,” a Washington County woman said.
Although most said that they continue to wear masks when in public, there are those with differing views, as well.
“Never wear a mask, and avoid places that require one, if I can,” one Bangor respondent said.
Stephanie Reiser of St. Albans fits into that category.
“I’m kind of adamant about not wearing a mask,” she said. “I don’t think there’s enough science behind justifying a mask. If that little mask that you put on, whether it’s a fashion mask or a disposable mask, if that’s the only thing separating you and me from this supposed terrible disease, then none of us should be outside.”
The vast majority of public health experts disagree. The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued a recommendation that people wear masks in public settings and anywhere they will be around other people.
Although Reiser doesn’t agree with their science at all, she has found that the push towards wearing a mask has changed her life, too. If people are worried that they might make her sick, she respects that concern and has opted against participating in some gatherings.
“I don’t want to make other people uncomfortable,” she said, adding that the pandemic also has caused her to limit how she travels, both inside and outside Maine. “The COVID takes the fun out of it.”
The glint of silver linings
Some of the changes made in response to the pandemic have been positive ones. A man in Aroostook County reported that he has taken up canning and become a much better cook than he was before.
Others have been able to save money, primarily by traveling and dining out less.
And then there’s Helen Crimmins of South Portland, for whom the pandemic changed nearly everything. She works in live entertainment and used to be busy producing and photographing shows. She was even in the running to do some work on Broadway in New York City.
“My work came to a complete stop,” she said. “I know that things can turn on a dime … that’s why you have to find the silver lining.”
For her, that looks like her car and house, which are very clean now.
“I guess it’s a byproduct of having more time to do things that I would normally not have time to do, because I was so busy,” she said.
But the silver lining also looks like her wedding. She and her husband went back and forth about whether they should hold a ceremony at all, she said. Ultimately, they decided on a small backyard ceremony at home, which they held in October.
“We were so stressed out, because of that wedding in Millinocket. Should we be doing this right now? But we realized that our families and our friends are all very level-headed, smart people,” she said. “We had considered canceling it a few times, but a friend of mine talked us into it. It’s going to be fine. Plus, people need this.”
They set some ground rules, including that people must wear a mask unless they’re eating or drinking. But they also had a lot of fun. They hired a caricature artist instead of a photographer and set up outdoor games such as croquet and cornhole for their guests to play.
“I know it’s been so challenging for everybody,” Crimmins said. “It’s so stressful. We all want to go back to normal.”
But that, for the moment, is something that can’t happen. But maybe it’s not all despair. Maybe there’s a glint of hope in that, too.
“It’s kind of nice to see people realizing that things can change in an instant,” she said. “And maybe they’ll appreciate things more going forward.”