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.

Ellis Family Market in Patten has a few signs cautioning shoppers to wear masks before they enter. But inside, masks are optional, and most customers walked in without them on the afternoon of March 1. 

Manager Karen Saucier said she does not enforce the sign on the door, and takes her own mask off when she’s in the grocery store aisles with no one else around. About a quarter of her customers don’t wear masks while shopping, Saucier said. 

“It really has not affected a lot here. It’s sometimes forgotten about, almost,” she said. “We don’t ask anybody to wear masks. Whether people wear them or don’t wear them, we don’t ask if they have an issue.”

Customers walk into the Ellis Family Market in Patten as a group of men shovel off the roof during a March 1 snowstorm. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN

The grocery store is across the street from the most visible symbol of the northern Penobscot County town’s encounter with COVID-19: the Stetson Memorial United Methodist Church, which recorded a virus outbreak in early December that led to the death of the pastor’s wife. The town of about 1,200 has recorded between 20 and 49 cases of the coronavirus since the start of the pandemic, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

The absence of masking and social distancing signs in the town sets it apart from nearby Houlton, the southern Aroostook County town about 40 minutes to the east. Lamp posts in Houlton’s Market Square are plastered with signs cautioning residents to wear masks and keep their distance, which most residents appear to follow. 

Houlton residents took some time to get used to wearing masks, said resident Gwen Savoy. Now, however, she said she sees most people use them in public places.

Residents of both Houlton and Patten agreed that they are better off than most of the rest of Maine.

“We’re lucky to be up here because cases are not as prominent as in the southern part,” Savoy said. “I feel grateful that we live up here.”

Savoy, who was vaccinated in February as Aroostook County proved faster than other Maine regions in administering shots, wasn’t wearing a mask as she walked her dog Trooper in downtown Houlton, but said she probably should have been. After vaccination, things are starting to look up, she said. The biggest cause of hope for her was President Joe Biden’s approach to vaccinations.

Clockwise: A girl (right) waits for a ride in downtown Houlton on March 1; Gwen Savoy talks about the pandemic while walking her dog, Trooper, in Houlton; the closed Temple Theatre marquee; Travis Robinson of Sherman shovels snow of the roof of Ellis Family Market in Patten. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN

“I always felt stressed regarding our past president because I never felt safe with him running the country,” she said. “I just feel better about this man. He’s here to help us.”