On March 12, 2020, life in Maine was forever changed. The first case of the coronavirus was confirmed in Maine, and in the days that followed businesses closed, schools were emptied of students and working from home became the norm.
We learned how to make face masks, washed our hands more than ever and distanced ourselves from the people we care about most. We watched as the virus crept closer and closer to our communities and our loved ones. As of March 11, 2021, we have lost 723 of our fellow Mainers to the virus.
Here, we look back at the critical moments that shaped the course of the pandemic over the past year in Maine.
1. Maine shuts down as the first coronavirus case is detected
March 1, 2020
Total cases: 0
Total deaths: 0
On March 12, a woman in her 50s from Androscoggin County is the first person in the state to test positive for a virus. She is a Navy reservist who recently traveled while on duty to Italy, and she begins to quarantine at home immediately.
Three days later, Gov. Janet Mills declares a state of emergency, as well as cities such as Bangor and Portland. Maine has been in a state of emergency ever since. Schools close statewide, college campuses shut down after spring break, the U.S. and Canadian border closes, dine-in restaurant service ends and gatherings of more than 10 people are banned.
On March 27, the first Mainer dies from COVID-19, a man in his 80s from Cumberland County. On the last day of the month, Mills issues a statewide stay-at-home order through April, allowing residents to only leave their homes for essential shopping and services. Mainers hunker down at home as they figure out what they can and can’t do under the stay-at-home order.
With stores and restaurants closing and items such as toilet paper and cleaning products in increasingly short supply, Mainers become more resourceful in fending for themselves at home. They research how to make their own cleaning supplies, what items need frequent cleaning and what to do if they run out of toilet paper. They find out how to start a small garden at home and what foods they can grow quickly. They even learn how to host birthday parties and other large gatherings online during the pandemic.
It’s only been two weeks.
2. Long-term care facilities become overrun with the virus
April 1, 2020
Total cases: 342
Total deaths: 7
Coronavirus cases spread, but slowly enough for contact tracers to find the origins. Long-term care facilities become especially vulnerable in the first months. A resident and an employee of Tall Pines Retirement and Healthcare Community in Belfast test positive for coronavirus. The outbreak will eventually grow to 43 total cases with 13 deaths, making it one of the deadliest nursing home outbreaks in the state. Residents’ families can do little but wave to their loved ones through closed windows and talk on the phone as they anxiously wait for updates about the virus’ spread. Long-term care facilities will bear the brunt of the outbreaks and deaths in the early months of the pandemic.
Other major outbreaks occur at Maine Veterans Home in Scarborough (34 residents, 29 staff and 13 deaths), the Augusta Center for Health and Rehabilitation (48 residents, 29 staff and 8 deaths) and Falmouth by the Sea (45 residents, 30 staff and 4 deaths).
By October, the Department of Health and Human Services will report finding violations of COVID-19 rules at 16 of the state’s 93 nursing homes. Violations include nursing home workers not covering their mouths and noses with masks, incomplete screening of visitors and staff for COVID-19 symptoms that resulted at least twice in nursing home employees working while sick, and improper handwashing and hygiene that risked contaminating the protective gear employees have worn to stem the virus’ spread.
3. Maine’s economy begins to open while some push back against restrictions
May 1, 2020
Total cases: 1,122
Total deaths: 55
Maine’s economy begins to reopen on May 1. Low virus counts in the state’s 12 rural counties allows restrictions to be further eased 10 days later, with retail stores reopening and gyms holding outdoor classes. By May 18, campsites can reopen and restaurants can host limited in-person dining in those same counties. Eating outside, sometimes with plexiglass dividers between distanced tables, becomes the new normal.
But some business owners rebel against the remaining restrictions. Rick Savage, co-owner of Sunday River Brewing Co. in Bethel, reopens the restaurant to in-person dining on May 1 in defiance of state orders. Hundreds of people frustrated with the restrictions flock to the restaurant. Savage loses his state health and liquor licenses later that day. Sunday River Brewing Co.’s restaurant license expires on Dec. 19, and on Dec. 23 a state official declines to renew it.
Days later, Ken Graves, pastor of Calvary Chapel in Orrington, open’s the church to in-person worship and files a lawsuit alleging Mills’ ban on in-person worship violates the First Amendment. A federal judge sides with Mills. The church’s appeal in the case is still pending.
On May 16, more than 500 people attend a protest in Augusta against Mills’ business restrictions. Debate over the degree of the restrictions becomes a contested issue in the months to come.
4. Maine welcomes back tourists as businesses try to recoup losses
June 1, 2020
Total cases: 2,319
Total deaths: 89
Restrictions on out-of-state visitors are loosened as Maine’s tourism-reliant businesses try to rebound from spring losses. Tourists are allowed to stay in hotels if they’ve completed a 14-day quarantine or can produce a negative COVID-19 test, though getting a test is easier said than done.
As virus rates stabilize in neighboring states, visitors from Vermont and New Hampshire are the first to no longer require tests or quarantine; New York, New Jersey and Connecticut are added in July. Massachusetts won’t join the list until September.
5. Life almost starts to feel normal again
July 1, 2020
Total cases: 3,254
Total deaths: 105
Outdoor dining is in full-swing statewide. All Maine schools get the green light to reopen for in-person learning in the fall. Outdoor, socially-distanced and masked gatherings with friends and family feel safe. Workers return to the office.
While it certainly isn’t back to a pre-pandemic sense of normalcy, the virus feels contained. Maine becomes one of just two states with decreasing case numbers.
Some rural counties report zero active cases, and become a destination for those fleeing virus hotspots such as Boston and New York City. A real estate agent in Aroostook County calls it ” the hottest market I’ve seen in 23 years,” estimating 90 percent of new homes are being sold to out-of-state buyers. Come the new school year, Rangeley will see 25 new students enrolled in its K-12 school as homes are bought up as soon as they hit the market.
The summer even gives Mainers an opportunity for new experiences. State parks report a 60 percent increase in the number of reservations for residents, and many Mainers went hiking, kayaking, paddleboarding and cycling for the first time.
The virus is still spreading and caution is still necessary. But the danger feels less imminent.
6. A wedding changes the path of the pandemic in Maine
August 1, 2020
Total cases: 3,903
Total deaths: 123
A wedding in the Katahdin-region becomes the state’s first superspreader event and a sobering reminder of the dangers of the virus. The 63-person wedding creates an outbreak that spreads to multiple counties, as one guest introduces the virus to the York County Jail and another infects a family member who inadvertently brings it to Maplecrest Rehabilitation and Living Center in Madison.
At least 176 cases are eventually tied to the wedding, including at least 82 cases at the York County Jail and 39 at Maplecrest. Seven residents die at Maplecrest, while an eighth person in the Millinocket area dies after being infected by a wedding guest.
In the coming days five people at the Calvary Baptist Church in Sanford test positive for COVID-19. The church’s pastor, Todd Bell, officiated the Katahdin-area wedding. He tells his followers to put their faith in “God, not government.”
7. The wedding outbreak continues to ripple statewide
September 1, 2020
Total cases: 4,525
Total deaths: 132
York County’s active case number more than doubles in just over a month, and the state downgrades the county’s school reopening designation to “yellow,” meaning students cannot return full-time.
“I am concerned that if we do not get a grip on what’s going on in York County, it has the potential to spiral and start affecting adjacent parts of the state in the not too distant future,” Nirav Shah, direct of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, says.
Pastor Bell continues to defy state orders, hosting indoor services with choir singing and limited mask wearing and social distancing. Family members of Maplecrest residents say they are “angry” with the couple for having the wedding.
8. Maine sees its second surge in virus cases
October 1, 2020
Total cases: 5,376
Total deaths: 142
When the first wave of cases hit Maine in the spring, it was concentrated in the southernmost urban counties and long-term care facilities. Now cases are spiking statewide, with the virus taking root in more rural and sparsely inhabited regions that had previously seen few cases and affecting a younger population.
By the end of the month, the state confirms that community transmission is occurring statewide. That means that they can no longer trace infections back to a known outbreak. On October 30, the state sees it’s first triple-digit rise in new cases, with 119 infections reported in the state.
9. The virus spreads like wildfire, but few restrictions return
November 1, 2020
Total cases: 6,649
Total deaths: 147
The number of daily cases reported in the state hits triple-digits on a near daily basis. Record numbers of Mainers are hospitalized with COVID-19 and the total number of confirmed infections rapidly approaches 10,000. And November hits a grim milestone as it becomes the deadliest month yet of the pandemic, with 82 deaths statewide.
Mills delays the reopening of bars statewide and enacts a 9 p.m. business curfew. Quarantines or negative test results are again required for those coming from out-of-state. But Mills stops short of ordering people to stay home, saying they aren’t plausible due to the lack of federal aid.
“We could do the things we did back in the spring because we had help from the federal government,” Mills said during a Maine CDC briefing. “That help is not there right now.”
10. The holidays drive so many cases that the state can no longer keep up
December 1, 2020
Total cases: 11,948
Total deaths: 214
Total vaccines given: 0
The month starts on a grim note as 20 deaths are reported in the state. The state continues to see triple-digit increases in daily COVID-19 cases, hitting its peak on Dec. 23 with 753 new coronavirus cases. Shah confirms that the increase in cases is a direct result of people gathering indoors for Thanksgiving.
The virus is spreading so quickly that the state is becoming increasingly less certain how Mainers are contracting it in the first place. Health care workers have become so overwhelmed that the state can no longer do contact tracing for every confirmed case. The state says it will now rely on those who test positive to reach out to their close contacts themselves. The contact tracers will instead focus their efforts on people who are considered high-risk.
The first doses of a COVID-19 vaccine arrive in Maine on Dec. 14. Nearly 24,000 vaccines will be distributed by the end of the year, though it’s not expected to be available to the general public until Summer 2021 at the earliest.
December surpasses November as the deadliest month of the pandemic, with 89 deaths so far this month. Shah warns that if people gather for Christmas and New Year’s, we will continue to see cases surge.
On Dec. 26, Trump signs a $900 billion pandemic relief package that includes $600 checks to most Americans. Even with the stimulus, Mills rejects imposing stricter coronavirus restrictions.
11. Hospitalizations of COVID-19 patients reach peak
January 1, 2021
Total vaccines given: 30,877
A spike in hospitalizations that began on New Year’s Eve at Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor continues into the new year, surpassing a record threshold of 200 patients throughout the state. The number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients at EMMC begins to drop midway through the month, but only because those patients have died or have since tested negative for the virus though they remain ill.
Daily triple-digit increase in COVID-19 cases continues into the new year as well, with the state seeing a peak of 824 new cases on Jan. 13. While Maine’s surge in cases continues, 12 other states and Washington, D.C., see fewer new virus cases during the second week of January than the Pine Tree State.
Piscataquis County’s commissioners adopt a resolution in secret that objects to Mills’ COVID-19 safety measures, makes numerous false statements and repeatedly refers to the coronavirus as the “Wuhan Virus.” In the coming weeks the Paris Select Board will pass a similar resolution, while the Androscoggin County Commission rejects one.
But the new year also brings good news on the vaccination front. Mills opens up vaccinations for Mainers aged 70 and older, targeting the state’s most vulnerable population for serious illness and death.
On Jan. 31, Maine reports its fewest number of new virus cases since November, and the first time in a week that no new Mainers have died from COVID-19.
12. Debate over who gets access to vaccines intensifies
February 1, 2021
Total vaccines given: 153,981
As availability of vaccines in Maine continues to increase, scrutiny over who gets access to those shots continues. MaineGeneral Health in Augusta is accused of favoritism after offering a small number of early doses of the coronavirus vaccine to donors and retired medical staff, starting that process more than a week before widely registering people 70 and older. It’s later revealed that the same hospital had been cited by the state earlier in January for violating COVID-19 prevention protocols.
The urgency to be vaccinated grows when the United Kingdom variant of COVID-19 is detected in a Franklin County resident in mid-February with a history of international travel. The South African variant of the disease is later detected in early March.
Mills announces that the state will abandon its previous vaccination plan that included earlier phases for Mainers with pre-existing conditions and essential workers, and instead switch to an age-based system, extending first to Mainers 60 and older, then 50 and older, 40 and older, 30 and older, and lastly Mainers younger than 30 by July.
Days later, the state will expand vaccinations to include teachers and child care workers of all ages, following a directive from President Joe Biden.
13. One year in, optimism that life will return to normal grows
March 1, 2021
Total vaccines given: 349,840
Mainers get their first glimpse at what a return to a normal summer may look like when Mills reveals her latest reopening plan. The plan includes allowing more tourists without requiring a quarantine period, increasing capacity limits and reopening bars and taprooms.
A normal life may be on the horizon a year after COVID-19 was first detected in Maine, but the state continues to feel the effects of the virus, both good and bad.
Rural Maine counties see an influx of homebuyers as people flee virus-dense urban areas for less populated regions. The median sales price for a single-family home in Aroostook County nearly doubles from $53,000 in 2015 to $97,000 in December 2020. The increased popularity of remote work also attracts more people to Maine, and could prove valuable to the state in the longterm.
Meanwhile, Maine’s hospitality capital in Portland is still reeling from the pandemic’s devastating impact on the industry. Portland, known as one of the nation’s top food destinations, lost notable eateries during the pandemic. Owners and workers at those that remain shared wrenching stories of hardship.
Coronavirus cases have declined dramatically since reaching their peak over the holidays, but the infection rate remains higher than it was the previous spring.
On March 11, 2021, nearly one year since the first COVID-19 case was detected in the state, 293,566 Mainers have received their first dose of a vaccine, and 170,311 are fully vaccinated.