Alice Lincoln, left, shops at Andy's IGA grocery store in Houlton, after indoor mask requirements were no longer required. Credit: Alexander MacDougall / Houlton Pioneer Times

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Matthew Gagnon of Yarmouth is the chief executive officer of the Maine Policy Institute, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. A Hampden native, he previously served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C.

On Monday morning, I walked into my local YMCA in Portland for a scheduled appointment in the pool. For the last six months or so, I’ve been going there three times a week to get in an hour’s worth of laps in my continuing personal War Against Obesity.

As I walk in (while wearing my mask) I’m greeted by a woman behind the front desk — and a plane of plexiglass — who recites a list of questions that I have now memorized.

Have I traveled outside of the country recently? No. Have I tested positive for COVID-19? No. Have I been exposed to anyone who has a confirmed or suspected case of COVID-19? No. Have I experienced any one of the dozens of symptoms on the poster behind her? No.

The questions amuse me, as they always have, particularly given how wildly outdated many of them are. I also chuckle to myself thinking about the presumably few people out there who may have actually been thwarted by answering yes to these questions.

I sat there, thinking many of these same thoughts to myself as I leaned into the tiny hole in the plexiglass and lifted up the University of Maine baseball cap that I was wearing, revealing my forehead to the woman, who aimed her “notoriously not accurate” (that’s a direct quote from someone in the New York Times, mind you) temperature gun at my head.

It beeped. I passed.

Then I shuffle over to the other receptionist — also behind plexiglass — and she scans my membership card to check me in, then hands over my laminated “time sheet,” indicating the time I am allowed to swim, as well as a spray bottle that I’m supposed to use to eradicate even the memory of any pathogen from the chair at the end of my lane.

All of this has become automatic to me, to the point that I failed to remember Monday that the state’s mask mandate has now officially been withdrawn, and I didn’t even ask about whether I needed to wear the mask anymore or not.

After I returned from my swim, I noticed that Maine broadcasting legend George Hale had posted about his own YMCA experience from that morning on Facebook.

“Y gym fully open,” wrote Hale, “working smoothly. Some with [masks] some without. All is good.”

A commenter on Hale’s post remarked that they “had a great swim this morning myself. Only thing is now, no more reserved swim lanes!”

Suddenly in that moment, I was irate. Lanes at my YMCA were still reserved for only one person, and time limits were strictly enforced to the point that they rather unceremoniously kicked me out of the pool when my time elapsed.

The difference? Hale’s YMCA is in Bangor, and mine is in Portland.

It seems to me that some people — like those at my local YMCA — are clinging to old fears, despite the change to state guidance, and despite actual scientific knowledge.

The spray bottles are still handed out for my swim, for instance, despite our understanding of COVID-19 telling us long, long ago that surface transmission is not a significant factor in the spreading of the virus.

Much of this is simply attitude, and habit.

I’ve talked to many people recently who have spent a lot of time in other states, be it Florida, Texas, Tennessee, Georgia or even New Hampshire, and in each and every one of those cases it has been remarkable to listen to them talk of how “normal” life has been in these places.

In the greater Portland area, I’ve found that you are likely to get dirty looks if you are walking around the grocery store without a mask, now that doing so is allowed. In these other states, it sounds like the dirty looks are likely to go in the other direction.

Indeed, I was struck a couple weekends ago when I took my son up to Hermon for a travel baseball doubleheader, and stopped for gas along the way. As I got out and put my mask on, I walked into a convenience store that had five patrons and a cashier, none of whom were wearing one. Suddenly, I felt like an interloper “from away” encroaching on a group I wasn’t a member of.

As the mandate is lifted and we start to get used to returning to normal, it is going to take everyone a little while to ease back into their previous life. Those of us advocating most strongly for that return to normal should treat everyone with kindness and understanding as that transition happens. Those who have demanded compliance with extreme restrictions should do what people like me did during the height of the restrictions: grit their teeth and bear it, and make their peace with the changes for the sake of getting along.


Matthew Gagnon of Yarmouth is the chief executive officer of the Maine Policy Institute, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. A Hampden native, he previously served as a senior strategist...