This story is part of the Bangor Daily News’ road trip across the state one year into the COVID-19 pandemic. Read an overview of the project here.
In early March 2020, the Swamp Buck restaurant in Fort Kent served buffet-style meals to dozens of mushers attending the Can-Am Crown International Sled Dog Race. But this year, on March 1, the restaurant that has lost its seasonal Can-Am patrons as well as its steady stream of Canadian customers was mostly empty except for one table just before lunchtime.
A year into the pandemic, the Fort Kent restaurant is operating at 50 percent capacity and relying on locals and snowmobile tourists from other parts of Maine, manager Nick Tardif said.
“Us and New Brunswick, we’re kind of in the same range of activity with the pandemic,” he said. “And I think it would be beneficial if we could just kind of work together in our local area because we have a lot of border communities on both sides that would benefit.”
The closure of the U.S.-Canada border hasn’t only inflicted economic pain in Aroostook County border communities. It’s also taken an emotional toll, as residents have been unable to visit friends and family in what they consider their neighboring towns in New Brunswick, said Gaetan Oakes, who owns the Whistle Stop restaurant in Fort Kent.
The County got through much of 2020 with minimal cases. It averaged about six new cases per month for the first seven months of the pandemic, before cases began climbing in the fall, and the virus spread to a number of nursing homes. Many businesses tightened their pandemic protocols as case numbers grew, but for most of the past year, residents have largely been able to dine indoors, shop at local businesses and even go bowling while adhering to masking and social distancing requirements
The border closure has been a constant regardless of how rapidly the virus has spread. The effects of the border closure are pronounced in Fort Kent, but life is comparatively normal in Presque Isle and Caribou.
Darrell Plourde, 74, works as a cashier at a gas station in Caribou 12 hours a week. He wears a mask and stands behind plexiglass in front of the cash register, and he now avoids large group gatherings, but life has gone on relatively unchanged, he said. He received his first coronavirus vaccine shot in late February.
“It hasn’t affected my life because I have two children who live around here. They’re fine, and my grandchildren are fine,” Plourde said. “I am glad we live in Aroostook County. There’s not too many people here.”
Since last March, Northern Lanes Bowling alley in Presque Isle has lost almost half the teams in its league, and not many people walk in off the street to bowl, said manager Dale Nickerson. But the bowling alley is still open for three hours every day, with every other lane blocked off and its candlepin bowling balls cleaned after every use.
“It’s cut our business in half, basically,” Nickerson said. “A lot of people were upset they had to wear masks when they came in, but everyone has to do their part.”
People don’t have to wear masks while bowling, but they do when walking around the bowling alley. On the afternoon of March 1, five bowling league members from Caribou who have all been vaccinated were using two lanes.
“It’s a good outlet for us,” league member Bob Longley said. “It just gives us something to do outside of home, and Dale has been nice enough to let us bowl.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified Nick Tardif’s role at Swamp Buck.