Earlier this summer, Merry White arrived for her vacation in rural Maine with a negative COVID-19 test in hand, as required by state guidelines for visitors from Massachusetts. But following the rules didn’t seem to be enough to quell suspicion, or worse, among locals.
“We found that the locals didn’t trust visitors,” said White, a professor at Boston University. “And the visitors didn’t trust the locals. The locals didn’t wear masks because they felt ’This is our village.’ So no one trusted anyone. We wore masks, and that marked us as outsiders.”
It hasn’t been an easy year for families looking for an escape. Some residents of rural areas and heavily trafficked tourist destinations have turned into vacation vigilantes, shaming outsiders who they feel may be putting them at risk of exposure to the virus. Ask around, and you’ll hear stories about dirty looks and locals grilling and shaming vacationers who show up with out-of-state plates.
This has been particularly true in the Northeast corner of the US, where states have pieced together a confusing and ever-changing list of travel restrictions and who-can-go-where rules to protect residents from the virus. It’s a higgledy-piggledy patchwork of guidelines with varying levels of enforcement — from a little to none. Therefore, vacation vigilantes have taken enforcement into their own hands.
South End resident Rob Hagan was in Vermont this spring as his fire-damaged condo was getting renovated. He quarantined at a friend’s house for several weeks. When he emerged for a trip to the local market, he got what he described as a verbal shake-down from the market’s butcher, who didn’t recognize him.
“He lectured me about a two-week quarantine period and not putting locals at risk,” Hagan said. “Meanwhile, I had been crashing at our friends’ house in South Woodstock for three weeks. It was a little jarring.”
On a recent trip to Truro, New Yorkers Ann and Evan Garner woke up one morning to find a nasty note on their windshield. New Yorkers are allowed to come to Massachusetts without producing a negative COVID-19 test or quarantining for two weeks.
“Why don’t you go back to New York and spread corona in your own state!” the note read.
“It was a little scary,” Ann Garner said. “New York has a lower positive test rate than Massachusetts, so if anyone was in danger, it was us.”
To be clear, the CDC isn’t exactly encouraging travel. According to its website, “Travel increases your chance of getting and spreading COVID-19. Staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others from COVID-19.”
But this year travel also seems to be fueling the spread of regional xenophobia. Krystal Lewis, a clinical psychologist at the National Institute of Mental Health who specializes in anxiety, said the pandemic has amplified fear and distrust of others, and the lack of a consistent federal response hasn’t helped.
“For people who are in smaller rural areas and aren’t used to having people around from outside their immediate circle, it’s uncomfortable,” she said. “As humans, we tend to gravitate towards those people who we see as being similar and familiar. Perceived differences can create discriminatory behavior. So it can be really hard for them to accept people they don’t know. That could be a result of COVID-19, but in general, I think that’s human nature. We’re just seeing a more extreme version.”
The travel xenophobia isn’t a summer 2020 phenomenon, and its roots go deeper than safety. The US declared coronavirus a national emergency on March 13, and throughout the spring, many city dwellers fled to ride out the COVID-19 storm in their country or oceanside second homes. But places such as Salisbury, Newburyport, and Plum Island refused to hook up the water supply to summer homes early to discourage second homeowners from coming.
Rhode Island took it a step further by sending state troopers to summer houses believed to be owned by New Yorkers. After New York Governor Andrew Cuomo threatened to sue Rhode Island for stopping cars with New York plates and checking on the summer homes, the order was rescinded.
“There has always been an undercurrent of resentment between residents and second homeowners,” said a year-round resident of Brewster, who asked that her name not be used. The topic is so contentious that many people interviewed for this story asked that their names not be used. “It’s always been there. Kind of an us-versus-them mentality. But the pandemic has really brought those feelings to the surface. It’s given people an excuse to be openly hostile.”
As someone who has traveled locally this summer, carefully following regulations put in place by each state, I can attest to an us-versus-them mentality toward tourists as well as second homeowners. In August I wrote a story about traveling to Maine with my parents. We all tested negative for COVID-19 before departing, stayed away from crowds, and wore masks every time we were outside. We followed all the rules. Despite this, I received a torrent of hate mail and online trolling like I’d never experienced in my 19 years at the Globe. The nice ones called me irresponsible, entitled, reckless, and many pet names not fit for print. The not-so-nice ones told me that they hope my entire family died of COVID-19. So much for writing a story that was intended to be a love letter to Maine.
According to psychiatrist Zlatin Ivanov, the heightened tensions surrounding travel, and resulting behaviors, aren’t just about health. He said we’re all cracking to some degree as a result of living under chronic stress.
“There is so much uncertainty about what is going to happen in the future,” Ivanov said. “Aside from getting sick from coronavirus, people are experiencing stress about their financial future, confusion around schooling for their kids, and, in some cases, they’re just fed up working from home and being around their spouse all day.”
This is where it gets even more complicated. Everyone deals with stress differently, Ivanov said. While some people may channel anxiety into finger wagging and shaming travelers, others may deal with their anxiety with a vacation. It’s a vicious cycle.
“I went to New Hampshire because there are no travel restrictions for people from Massachusetts and I really needed a vacation. My boss told me to take a vacation,” said Frederick Ross of Boston. “But that didn’t matter. People saw my Massachusetts plates and I got dirty looks. But here’s the kicker: I was the one who was always wearing my mask. A lot of locals weren’t.”
Whether you’re traveling, or worried about tourists traveling to your community, there is something you can do to reduce your anxiety, and that’s follow basic common sense.
“There are really only certain things that people can control, and that’s their own behavior,” Lewis of the NIMH said. “We know anxiety is fueled by uncertainty and uncontrollability, which I think we’re going to be living with for a while. So the best advice is to focus on what you can control to keep yourself and your loved ones safe, and that’s wearing a mask and minimizing time spent around large groups of people.”