On MDI, A Sense Of Community Despite The Pandemic

Feb 11, 2021

The tight-knit communities of Down East Maine can feel isolated during the winter, even when there’s no pandemic.

But it’s this time of year when the community bands together even during the spread of COVID-19.

Morning Edition host Irwin Gratz spoke with Liz Graves, a former journalist and transplant to Mount Desert Island who now works in the Bar Harbor town office, as part of our ongoing conversations with Mainers from around the state.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Graves: As you can imagine, in the summer, tourism takes over a lot of life and everyone is quite busy. So in the winter, our community life is really dominated by our kids, even those of us who don’t have kids. There’s basketball, and there’s drama, and there’s music. And that’s what we talk about. So we’re really, really excited that those things are continuing as much as possible.

Gratz: What about outdoor activities? A couple of weeks ago, we were talking to someone from up in Aroostook County. And at that time, there was very little snow there. What are conditions like at the moment where you are, and is it allowing people to do the stuff outdoors that Mainers like to do in the winter?

Now, finally, the skiers just in the last week are getting their moment. Cold water dipping and even swimming is having something of a moment. There’s a group of women on the Cranberry Isles who have actually been doing it for years, they call themselves the Dip of the Month Club. And some other local groups have gotten going, and apparently Martha Stewart stopped by and watched. I don’t think she participated.

Are people spending more time outdoors, even in winter, because they perceive it to be safer there?

So I think some people are getting together outside to go for walks or skiing. We certainly spend a lot of time around my firepit with one or two friends over, and that’s been huge for everyone’s mental health. Back to school for a second, we had to go fully remote here. We’ve been really lucky to be able to do most of what we do, and fully remote for two weeks meant no sports or practices or arts. And so that was another big setback. It has not been easy.

So talk a little bit about how that’s affected your work, too.

I work in the town office, and we have been back to normal for many months, and folks have been good just like they were during the tourist season about wearing masks. We still have free masks available lots of places. So as long as someone remembers to wear a mask, they can come in and do things pretty much normal. If they’re waiting in line, they have to wait further spaced out. We did install some new heat pumps that are designed to be primarily for filtration and ventilation.

Downtown Bar Harbor is very quiet this time of year. Are the local businesses there OK? Will they be there come the spring? Or are there some that you know of that are having trouble making it through, perhaps because of what conditions were like last summer?

There are some that chose not to open at all or to close for longer in the winter than they normally do. Some normally take a month and decided to really take the whole winter to stop the bleeding. But residents are still really excited to go to the bakery or go to the bookstore. And so the places that are open are doing OK.

And so it may be hard to tell until spring comes around and you actually see what does reopen.

And something that was surprising to me that I heard last year was that staffing is a challenge when you’re busy. And staffing is a challenge when you’re less busy and there are fewer customers and you have to keep more space between the customers. Staffing is always a challenge.

What else is on your mind these days?

We didn’t get to have our MDI Marathon this past fall, which is also a big draw for visitors and a thing that the community gets excited about. We did have this one incredible person here, her name is Puranjot, and she attempted to swim all the way around Mount Desert Island — it’s 40-some miles. She didn’t complete the circumnavigation this time, she’s definitely going to try again. There’s this sense of being excited about cheering on each other’s effort. So sports and arts continuing as part of that. We have that thing where the utility poles on the way off the island have the names of the basketball team members and the swim team members and that’s happening this year, even if none of it’s happening the same way as normal.