FORT KENT, Maine — Kaci Hickox went to Africa to treat people with Ebola. When she returned to the United States, she became a flashpoint for the fears of a nation. This week, she brought those fears here, to the farthest edge of northern Maine.
The governor has vowed to seek court authority to keep her at home under a quarantine if she won’t voluntarily stay away from the public. But after a day of negotiations to avoid that, the outcome remained unclear, and it appeared the standoff would linger.
Thursday morning, the nurse defied what the state has called a voluntary quarantine and clambered aboard a bike for a ride with her boyfriend, trailed by State Police and a rolling clutch of reporters.
Hickox has called the quarantine a violation of her civil rights, because she has no symptoms and thus cannot transmit the disease.
The melodrama is being absorbed by the people of Fort Kent, population 4,200, just across the St. John River from Canada.
Becky Lawn, owner of the Moose Shack restaurant on East Main Street, gave a half-dozen interviews to national media Thursday.
“It’s overwhelming,” Lawn said of the media glare.
Fort Kent is where Hickox came after first being detained at a New Jersey hospital upon returning from Sierra Leone, where she was volunteering with the aid group Doctors Without Borders.
The nurse lives here with her boyfriend, Ted Wilbur. State authorities want her to remain cloistered in Wilbur’s house until Nov. 10, when the potential incubation period for Ebola would end.
Fort Kent’s only hotel, the Northern Door Inn, is filled with reporters, turning away the truckers and sportsmen who regularly come through via winding roads with signs warning against collisions with moose. Reporters are clustered outside of Hickox’s house, a few miles west of downtown.
“It’s all-consuming. It’s interrupted our peaceful existence,” said Town Manager Donald Guimond, who pronounces his name the French way, as do many residents, who are mostly descendants of the Acadians driven out of Nova Scotia in the 18th century or immigrants from Quebec. Many have jobs and relatives a short hop across the river in Clair, New Brunswick.
“If you go to any coffee shop or any restaurant in town, it’s probably the only thing being talked about,” Guimond said. “It’s all fear-driven. Much of the hysteria is not based on medical science.”
Hickox was the topic of conversation at the McDonald’s in town, where a group of retirees gathered Thursday afternoon to drink coffee.
Ninety percent of the people in town would walk out of a restaurant that she walked into, said J.R. Laferriere, 70. “She’s not making any friends,” he said.
The consensus among this group was that Hickox should stay home, out of consideration for her neighbors.
“She shouldn’t be running around town, as far as I’m concerned,” Leo Bouley Jr. said.
Fort Kent is the northernmost point of Route 1, a two traffic-light town where, as one local put it, the snow comes by Halloween and the ice is still on the lake on Mother’s Day. Most people here work in logging or agriculture, at the local hospital, or at the University of Maine Fort Kent.
The university has a nursing school, and there, professor Jenny Radsma had nothing but admiration for the 33-year-old nurse.
“She’s incredibly courageous to be putting her neck out the way she is,” Radsma said.
She said Hickox is taking a stand for her civil rights and for the principles of sound science.
That belief comes as little surprise to those who know Hickox. She grew up in rural Texas, where both her parents were teachers in the local schools, the school superintendent said in an interview Thursday.
At Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Hickox worked for Dr. Neal Halsey as a part-time research assistant at the Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Halsey described Hickox as conscientious and passionate. “It is not surprising that she is speaking out against something that she feels is inappropriate,” Halsey said.
“Unfortunately,” he said, “there has been much more fear of Ebola being transmitted to the public than there is scientific knowledge.”
Back at the Moose Shack in Fort Kent, Lawn said it appears that her customers, for whom Hickox’s actions are a topic of endless, heated conversation, are evenly split on whether she is behaving appropriately.
Lawn herself is supportive of Hickox, who had been a regular customer. “She went for a bike ride,” Lawn said. “That’s not hurting anyone.”
After Hickox mentioned in a television interview that she wished she could go out for pizza, people from as far away as Utah called the Moose Shack offering to buy her one for delivery. Lawn decided to donate the pizza — with Hickox’s favorite toppings of pepperoni, black olives, and mushrooms – and was preparing to deliver it to the house, with permission from the police.
Chad Pelletier, a cook at the Moose Shack, has no opinion on Hickox, but isn’t enjoying hordes of strangers roaming the town where he has lived all his 39 years.
“I don’t want things to change,” he said. “I like small-town America.”