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.

Sunday River ski resort in Newry was swarming with skiers equipped with skis, helmets and face coverings on a sunny late February morning. Janet Armstrong, 70, sat at a wooden picnic table outside the closed ski lodge, waiting for her daughter Caroline Ganier.

A Michigan native, Armstrong was visiting her daughter, a New Hampshire resident, after receiving her COVID-19 vaccine in her home state. As part of that visit, she had traveled to Sunday River with her daughter and grandsons, who enrolled in ski school.

Clockwise from left: A homemade poster is attached to the entry sign of W.G. Mallett School in Farmington on Feb. 24; Morgan Noyes (left) and Olivia Paradis, first-years at the University of Maine at Farmington, talk about college during the COVID-19 pandemic; Robert Parker shovels snow off of the roof of the Ridlonville Diner on Main Street in Mexico; People walk with equipment at Sunday River ski resort on Feb. 24. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

Skiing felt like a safe way to be outdoors, Armstrong said. And this year, Ganier said, it brought back a degree of normalcy, as the family goes on a ski trip every year. The difference is, this year she and her family can’t stop for a bite on a mid-mountain lodge, and they have to ski with masks on.

“People are not argumentative about the mask situation here,” Armstrong said. “I feel like Maine is being super-cautious.”

Western Maine has occupied a unique position during the pandemic. Early on, it was the site of some of the first open defiance of state coronavirus restrictions, as Sunday River Brewing in Bethel opened its doors on May 1, before the state resumed allowing dine-in restaurant service. Over the summer and fall, the region proved to be a refuge for people from more populated areas with higher rates of coronavirus infections. Owners of second homes remained in Maine longer than normal, and new buyers scooped up properties for sale. Then, in September, Oxford County saw its own virus surge after the ND Paper Mill in Rumford, a major employer, experienced its first virus outbreak.

The Sunday River ski resort has seen one outbreak this season. Still, the omnipresence of masks and social distancing signs at the resort set it apart from surrounding communities.

In Mexico, about a half-hour east of the ski resort, Todd Wardwell, who owns Todd’s Discount Gifts and Collectibles, saw an influx of business earlier in the pandemic as people sought refuge in the area. He’s even hoping new customers in the area will allow him to reopen his shuttered 1950s-style Ridlonville Diner, which is down the street from the Rumford paper mill.

“I can’t believe the amount of people that want to get out of the cities and want to be up here,” he said. “It’s wide open here. People just want to get out. They’re sick of COVID.”

Clockwise: Masked students pass in front of the Olsen Student Center after leaving the dining hall on the campus of the University of Maine at Farmington on Feb. 24; a woman talks about the pandemic while at Sunday River ski resort; a masked bear statue at Sunday River; a student enters the COVID-19 testing site at Dearborn Gymnasium. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

The crowds weren’t so visible in late February, when restaurant parking lots were almost empty and motels had plenty of vacancies. But downtown Farmington was bustling with pedestrians and University of Maine at Farmington students.

For first-year students Olivia Paradis and Morgan Noyes, it is worth living on campus and abiding by pandemic restrictions rather than attending college remotely.

“We’re in our first year, so obviously we haven’t had any other type of college experience, but it’s been a little odd,” Paradis said. “I was kind of hoping there’d be some type of normal school year for us, and it’s been a little bit different but not too bad.” 

Stops on the BDN’s COVID-19 road trip