The quiet town of Naples as seen from Roosevelt Trail on Thursday. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

NAPLES — Della Blais said she’s used to seeing this lakeside community she and her family call home turn quiet each year once the out-of-town visitors leave.

But never like this.

“Everything is shut down, it seems like,” the 43-year-old mother of six said last week while walking the Causeway, the well-known stretch of Route 302 that separates Long Lake and Brandy Pond and is lined with restaurants and shops. “Even when (the pandemic) first started, it wasn’t as bad as it is now.”

Throughout the summer and early fall, COVID-19 had largely spared Naples and many smaller towns like it across Maine and the country. In less than a month, the situation has changed dramatically.

As of Dec. 6, the number of Naples residents who tested positive for COVID-19 was 70, an increase from just 10 cases on Nov. 8, according to the most recent ZIP code data from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Of the 58 Maine ZIP codes with more than 50 cases, Naples, home to about 4,000 year-round residents, is by far the least populated. Bridgton, one town over and with a population of 5,500, had 16 cases on Dec. 6. Casco, which borders Naples to the southeast and also has about 4,000 residents, had 40 cases on Dec. 6, although that was an increase of 16 in just one week.

Dale and Paula Morse of Naples enjoy beers at Gary’s Olde Towne Tavern on Thursday. The couple, who would normally be in Florida for the cold months, said that they decided to stay at home in Maine. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Several restaurants in Naples have closed or moved to curbside-only service – some as a precaution, others because staff or customers had tested positive. The town office had to close for two weeks after a staff member was exposed. Even the newly elected state senator representing Naples, Republican Rick Bennett, had to skip his swearing-in because he contracted the virus.

In conversations last week with residents and business owners in Naples, there was a palpable anxiety among many but a come-what-may attitude expressed by others. All agreed, though, that the rise in cases has people venturing out less, which is impacting local businesses already struggling.

“I’m seeing people starting to stay home much more now than in the summer,” said Kristie Leighton, who owns Knight’s Café with her mother, Tammy Sawyer, and is worried about getting through the winter. “For people who thought we were immune or that it wouldn’t hit here, this has been a bit of a reality check.”

The surge of cases in Naples is a microcosm of the pandemic’s current insidious wave. While the early months of the pandemic were dominated by massive outbreaks tied to big metropolitan areas, the recent sustained spread is happening in smaller communities, many of which hadn’t had much to worry about until now, and through family and friend gatherings where mask-wearing and social distancing might be less frequent.

Maine CDC director Dr. Nirav Shah has often said that the COVID-19 virus needs only opportunity to spread. Naples is the latest in a long line of examples where that has played out.

Marie Kushner of Marie’s Kitchen says that while she had an increased amount of business from boating traffic during the summer, mostly from people with second homes in the area, her catering business has declined considerably. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

“I do attribute it to folks being complacent,” Town Manager John Hawley said bluntly. “For many months, there were so few cases here, I think people had the attitude that it wasn’t going to happen to them.”

Naples is not alone. Skowhegan in Somerset County had just 15 cases on Oct 11. Now, there are 111 cases there. Gardiner in Kennebec County reported 17 cases on Oct. 11. By Dec. 6, it had grown to 106 cases. Farmington and Orono, both college towns, have been hard hit in recent weeks, as have several towns along the New Hampshire border, including Kittery, the Berwicks and Lebanon.

Marie Kushner, who operates a catering service in Naples called Marie’s Kitchen, said that in the last few weeks, including the Thanksgiving holiday, she heard of several large gatherings around town, including one where 12 attendees ended up testing positive. She said it’s disappointing to see towns like hers reverse what had been a positive trend.

“I think the mild summer gave people a false sense of security,” she said. “People felt they were safe.”

Dale and Paula Morse, 74 and 72 respectively, are aware of the current surge but not terribly worried yet. They still go out for lunch most days at Gary’s Olde Towne Tavern, one of the handful of non-seasonal restaurants in town. Gary’s was among the businesses that had to close to in-person dining last month because of a positive case.

The Morses are typically snowbirds – they rent a place in Florida for the winter – but are staying put at their home on Brandy Pond this year. They don’t want to deal with the hassle of travel.

“And if I’m going to get sick, I want to get sick here,” Dale Morse said.

PERSISTENT WARNINGS

In the weeks before summer, warnings persisted that the coronavirus might spread in tourist-heavy communities like Naples, where Brandy Pond, Trickey Pond and half of Long Lake boast rental properties and vacation homes popular with out-of-state crowds.

Infection rates in other states far outpaced Maine’s, which was part of the reason Gov. Janet Mills signed an order that required visitors from most states to quarantine for 14 days or provide proof of a negative test.

But fears that out-of-state visitors would drive cases up never materialized.

From July 4 through Oct. 1 – the peak of Maine’s tourist season – the seven-day case average never went above 33 and bottomed out at about 14 cases per day in early August. The seven-day average didn’t go over 100 cases until Nov. 3, long after tourist season. It went over 200 cases just 18 days later. As of Friday, the seven-day average was 337. Increasingly, a smaller percentage of new cases are tied to outbreaks, according to the Maine CDC.

“There’s nobody to point a finger at other than ourselves, our own people,” Hawley said.

In fact, Kushner said that in her experience out-of-state customers were more likely than locals to wear masks and adhere to other safety measures, although that has started to shift. On Thursday, nearly everyone seen walking into a business was masked.

“I would say the locals are a little more carefree. They don’t seem to be as nervous,” Kushner said. “I think some in other states were hit worse by the virus early on, so they took it more seriously.”

Kristie Leighton, center, and her mother Tammy Sawyer left their jobs just before the start of the pandemic to open their own business, Knight’s Cafe in Naples. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Blais and Nickie Lasselle were walking Thursday along the Causeway, enjoying the sunshine. Both women said they noticed a mood shift in town about three weeks ago. Blais, who already has contracted the virus and recovered, said she’s more concerned about the economic impacts of the recent surge.

“Everyone has their own thoughts. I don’t even know how to look at it anymore. But it’s sad, especially for the working people around here,” she said. “January, February, March, I think, are going to be rough around here.”

Lasselle said she noticed that attitudes about the virus seemed to be relaxed in the summer. She admitted to being complacent herself but said people were able to be outside far more.

“I feel like people are scared to go inside now where anyone else is,” she said.

Both Blais and Lasselle say they continue to go out with family and gather with friends. They take precautions and abide by the rules but aren’t militant about it.

A woman fastens her mask while walking on Roosevelt Trail in Naples on Thursday. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

“We do the requirements and everything,” Blais said. “But are these masks legit doing anything for us?”

Leighton, at the Knight’s Cafe, said her 17-year-old daughter, who attends Lake Region High School in Naples, has been more anxious in recent weeks.

“We go grocery shopping and she’s clinging to me. She doesn’t want anyone getting close to her,” she said. “There is obviously a lot of talk around town with people getting sick. Who might they have seen or where might they have been?”

There are no active outbreaks in Naples, according to the Maine CDC, which means cases are spreading through community transmission. Cases have yet to significantly impact schools. Both Lake Region High School and Lake Region Middle School have seen fewer than five total cases in the last 30 days, according to the Maine Department of Education.

Maine CDC director Shah said last week that the chains of transmission are getting blurry. Initially, he said, “it was a series of straight lines, dots that we could connect. Now, it’s a bowl of spaghetti.”

The Walgreens in Naples is one of dozens across the state that have partnered with the Department of Health and Human Services on rapid drive-thru testing. Some in town suggested that maybe residents have access to testing they didn’t have before and that’s why cases have spiked.

The data doesn’t back that up. According to figures provided by the Maine CDC, the Naples Walgreens has conducted an average of 38 tests per day since it began offering rapid testing, tied for 13th most among 65 sites statewide. The positivity rate of tests conducted in Naples, 5.0 percent, is almost directly in the middle – 31 locations had higher rates, 33 had lower rates.

Scott Matusovich, a family nurse practitioner at North Bridgton Family Practice & Walk-in Clinic, said he’s definitely seen more traffic in the past few weeks.

“Our walk-in clinic has taken on the role of doing most of the COVID testing for the area,” he said. “If you look at our numbers, certainly the number of tests we’re doing is going up, but our positivity rate from November on is as high as it’s been.”

Matusovich said for cases he’s seen, the person knows who might have infected them.

“In the majority of cases it’s ‘my son or daughter had it or a co-worker had it and now I’m symptomatic,’” he said. “In a smaller community (like Naples), it’s a little easier to trace.”

NO EASY ANSWER

Bennett, the state senator for Naples who lives two towns over in Oxford, started feeling a little off on Thanksgiving Day. His daughter told him his energy level seemed low. The next day, he developed a sore throat. Although the symptoms were mild, he made an appointment to get tested. The results came back 24 hours later.

Bennett isolated within his home. When he had to go into common areas, he wore a mask. Thankfully, he said, his wife, mother and daughter all tested negative.

“The worst thing is thinking about giving it to other people because you never know where it’s going to end,” he said. “I wanted it to end with me.”

Bennett said he still doesn’t know how he contracted the virus. He didn’t have an easy answer for why the situation is so acute in Naples, either.

“In some ways, it mirrors what’s happening a lot of other places, and more people are getting tested now,” he said. “But this is clearly something that can spread quickly without a lot of caution.”

A pedestrian walks on the causeway in Naples on Thursday. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Many restaurants and businesses along the Causeway are seasonal and closed weeks ago. Others, like Knight’s Café, are hoping to get through a lean winter. Leighton and Sawyer say they have no patience anymore for patrons who want to come in without a mask.

“During summer, a lot of people didn’t want to wear a mask,” Leighton said. “We had to talk to a lot of people who outright refused. Those interactions have gone down significantly in the past month or two, so that’s been nice. We don’t have a choice in it. We can’t afford to lose our license.”

Many other patrons have commended them on their strict policy, especially lately, she said.

Robin Mullins, executive director of the Sebago Lakes Region Chamber of Commerce, which supports 10 towns including Naples, has been in charge of educating businesses about the various state guidelines for operating during COVID-19. Her chamber received funding under the state’s Keep ME Healthy Program.

“I’ve probably made a couple hundred visits since August,” she said. “For some, the initial reaction was, ‘Who is this person?’”

Mullins agreed with others that the warm summer days brought with them complacency.

“I think what I’m seeing now is the opposite,” she said. “People are hearing about and seeing these numbers and saying maybe it’s time to take this more seriously.”

The challenge with that, of course, is that by the time the increase shows up in data, the spread is much harder to contain.

“I think it’ll be worse after Christmas,” said Hawley, the town manager. “People may be more willing to give up Thanksgiving, but I don’t think those people are willing to give up Christmas.”

The causeway in Naples is reflected in a storefront window on Thursday. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Sawyer, the cafe owner, said she understands that but also said, “Is a Thanksgiving or Christmas gathering worth one of your family members getting sick?

“Can you give up this one holiday season, so that you can have many more gatherings with loved ones in the years ahead? I wish people would think more along those lines. It’s just not worth it.”

Sawyer’s own parents are in their 80s and have all but stopped going out anywhere. Every day before she comes from work, she calls and asks if they need anything. On a recent trip to the grocery store with her mother, Sawyer said she found herself standing in front of her like a shield down each aisle.

Sawyer knows full well that encouraging people to hunker down may be bad business in the short term for a café like hers that needs year-round walk-in traffic. But she also wants as many of those customers as possible to be around next year once the slow roll of vaccinations restores some normalcy to the town.

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