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In remote Maine, the coronavirus is a distant threat

Kerr Dickson is the manager of Mountain Sports, a popular gathering spot for locals in Dover-Foxcroft, Maine.
Kerr Dickson is the manager of Mountain Sports, a popular gathering spot for locals in Dover-Foxcroft, Maine.Greta Rybus for the Boston Globe

DOVER-FOXCROFT, Maine — Only five customers at a time are allowed in Mountain’s Sport Shop to browse through the fishing rods, waders, and tall rows of hunting rifles mounted on a wall. But none of them were wearing masks one recent day, and neither were the managers, one of whom was on the phone asking for more ammo.

Next door, a small market advertised a stash of toilet paper, 50-pound sacks of potatoes, and “camp beer” for $12.88 a case. Again, no masks were worn by a small cluster of patrons who made up the lunchtime crunch.

If the coronavirus has unnerved locals in Piscataquis County, the evidence is hard to find. And so is the disease. This sprawling county of tiny towns and spectacular wilderness did not record its first case of coronavirus until April 19, the last county in New England to do so.


“We’re always behind the times up here," Travis Belote, the sport shop’s co-manager, said with a shrug. “Being spaced out probably helps. Social distancing isn’t as hard.”

That’s an understatement in Piscataquis County, where 16,800 people live in an area the size of Connecticut. That’s 4.3 people per square mile. Outside of Dover-Foxcroft, the county seat 250 miles north of Boston and about an hour’s drive from Bangor, many people can’t see their neighbors when they look out the front door.

Now that the coronavirus has arrived, the news seemed noteworthy only because one confirmed case had taken so long, and because Piscataquis County had lost a talking point of rugged pride.

"There was certainly that New England mentality, that hard-headedness that we were invincible,” said Kerr Dickson, another manager at the sport shop, which the state considers an essential business. “We’re not crammed together like people are in downtown Boston.”

Still, the pandemic has transformed the homespun face of this former mill town of 4,200 people. Nearly all the stores are closed in its small center. The theater, a hair stylist, a laundromat — all shuttered. Few pedestrians walk the streets near the Piscataquis River.


“The biggest problem we’ve had is trying to get people to think that everybody has it. People are getting antsy," said Tom Capraro, the county’s emergency management director. “You’ve got a lot of tough old Mainers, and it’s tough to change people’s minds.”

That frustration boiled over in the state capital last Monday, when 300 people protested the state’s mandatory business closures and stay-at-home order through April 30. Many stood shoulder to shoulder, hoisting President Trump reelection signs and disregarding the familiar recommendation to stand at least 6 feet apart.

Dr. David McDermott is a senior physician at Northern Light Mayo Hospital, which is overseeing the county's drive through testing units.
Dr. David McDermott is a senior physician at Northern Light Mayo Hospital, which is overseeing the county's drive through testing units. Greta Rybus for the Boston Globe

In Piscataquis County, some locals say with a straight face, standing 6 feet apart is almost close enough to dance. That natural separation helps explain why the virus took so long to migrate to the county, home to Mount Katahdin and Moosehead Lake. Elsewhere in northern Maine, Aroostook County had confirmed four cases by Sunday, and Washington County had two.

Overall, the state on Sunday reported 50 deaths and 1,015 cases. Cumberland County, which includes Portland, had a state-high 454 cases. York County, which borders southeastern New Hampshire, was second with 196.

Piscataquis County, always proud of its geography, now has another reason to appreciate its distinctiveness.

“Every time I saw our number on TV, I knocked on wood and thanked God," said Lillian Billington, an older woman here who wore a mask and used hand sanitizer before opening her car door.


Despite the advantage of isolation, Piscataquis County carries built-in risks for the virus. The county’s median age is 52, the oldest in a state whose median age is the highest in the nation. Nursing homes here, like others across the country, have barred visitors.

Although anxiety appears low generally, many seniors are heeding the warnings that danger might be coming. Nearly all of the older customers at Will’s Shop 'n Save, a downtown grocery store, wore masks as they shuttled in for food and supplies. More than a few younger shoppers did not.

“I thought it was rather strange that we didn’t have any cases," said Penny Boone, an older resident who wore gloves as she carried her grocery bags. “I guess this is the new norm.”

Dr. David McDermott, senior physician executive for the county’s two small hospitals, said without hesitation that he expects more cases.

“We will see some, and we’ve been preparing for that for more than a month," McDermott said.

McDermott’s office here, at Northern Light Mayo Hospital, is close to two drive-up tents that have been set up in the parking lot. About four people a day arrive for screenings, and test samples are sent to a Northern Light medical facility in Bangor, he said.

The one confirmed case involving a Piscataquis resident did not come from a test conducted in the county, but rather in Bangor, McDermott said.


So far, no one has been admitted to Mayo Hospital for treatment of the virus, the physician said. If needed, the hospital has two critical-care beds and room for more. The county also has an alternate site with 48 additional beds, according to Capraro, who would not identify its location for fear of upsetting the neighbors.

“You never feel you’re all set. You always look at the worst-case scenario,” said Capraro, who worked for the Providence Fire Department for 23 years. “We definitely feel fortunate here."

Capraro said two of his cousins, 82 and 79, had been living in Rhode Island nursing homes and died of the virus.

Although no such deaths have been recorded here, McDermott said the solitary case has dented a false sense of security.

“Is there really a reason to believe that Piscataquis County is this isolated county, and that everyone around us has the virus but we don’t?" McDermott asked.

Apparently, some people do believe that. Out-of-staters have begun coming to their summer homes earlier than usual, residents said. And visitors from more-populated parts of Maine reportedly have driven for hours just to shop in Dover-Foxcroft.

“Someone is said to have come up from Scarborough and bought $800 in groceries and supplies here,” the doctor said, shaking his head slightly at the thought of a food run from the Portland suburb, 150 miles away.

Residents can laugh off such extremes, but there’s a clear undercurrent of concern about the virus.


“My gut feeling is that it has been in Piscataquis County for quite some time,” McDermott said. “People are worried about the uncertainty of this. There is a lot of fear of the unknown, and there are a lot of unknowns about the coronavirus.”

McDermott said he has stopped making predictions about its potential spread. However, he added, the calendar in northern Maine could be a boon.

“We’re normally isolated anyhow, but this is the worst month of the year in getting out and seeing people," McDermott said with a smile. “This is mud season."

John Hilliard of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at brian.macquarrie@globe.com.