Barista Madison Watkins serves a drink in a disposable cup Friday at Coffee by Design in Portland. Coffee by Design has started serving all food and beverages using disposable cups and plates to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Coffee by Design won’t touch your coffee cup. Cumberland town employees are preparing to work from home. L.L. Bean canceled international business travel.

As the number of confirmed coronavirus cases rises across the country, Mainers are preparing for a potential outbreak by planning ways to distance themselves from others. That could mean closing schools and child care centers, canceling sport events and encouraging people to just stay home.

With the number of coronavirus cases in the U.S. at about 400 as of Saturday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has advised cities and towns to adopt “social distancing” measures to limit the spread of the virus.

Ferry passengers depart the Machigonne II after arriving in Portland from Peaks Island on Saturday morning. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The term social distancing may be foreign to some, but the concept is one often practiced during the flu season, said Dora Anne Mills, the state’s former top health official and currently chief health improvement officer for MaineHealth. Common social distancing strategies include telecommuting, avoiding mass gatherings and keeping a distance of several feet between yourself and others, she said.

There have been no confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Maine, but test samples from about a dozen Mainers who are showing symptoms have been sent to federal health officials for testing. And health officials say it is only a matter of time before the highly contagious virus arrives in Maine.

Because there have not been coronavirus infections in Maine, widespread cancellations haven’t happened. But that could change quickly if the virus spreads. Mills said it’s not too soon to practice social distancing.

“We might as well get used to it in case there is community transmission here in Maine,” she said.

PRACTICAL PRECAUTIONS

Maine businesses are preparing, but not obsessing, about the spread of the virus, said Peter Gore, executive vice president at the Maine State Chamber of Commerce.

Some of Maine’s biggest companies with locations across the country and globe have limited business travel, limited inter-office meetings and prepared employees to work from home to help limit the spread of the virus.

“I think everyone is trying to take a practical and not panicked position on it, I really do,” Gore said.

The U.S. CDC released guidance to businesses that emphasizes making sure sick employees stay at home and out of contact with co-workers, customers and others. It also recommends routinely cleaning frequently touched surfaces, making sanitizing wipes freely available and advertising proper hand-washing and cough-protection techniques on prominent workplace posters.

It also encourages companies to set up an infectious disease outbreak response plan that includes essential personnel and business functions, as well as triggers for when contact between companies and the public should be limited or when to stop operations entirely.

Tilson Technology, a Portland company with 20 locations across the country, has curtailed nonessential business travel, external meetings – including job interviews – and is encouraging the use of telepresence conferences, said Adria Horn, vice president of workforce.

Idexx, a Westbrook-based veterinary technology company with offices in North America, Europe and Asia, has “cancelled all non-business-critical country-to-country business travel worldwide,” a spokesperson said in an email. The company is also asking all employees, vendors and customers to self-evaluate, based on a set of company criteria including health and travel, before entering Idexx sites.

Fans fill the seats for the Maine Mariners game at Cross Insurance Arena on Friday in Portland. The arena hasn’t changed its practices overall, but has increased the frequency of cleaning high-touch surfaces and making sure hand sanitation dispensers are full. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Wex Inc. on Wednesday lowered its first quarter revenue expectations because of the impact the coronavirus had on its travel and shipping services. The payment processing firm has also restricted country-to-country travel and replaced discretionary intra-country travel with virtual meetings. Wex is also making any employee who recently returned from a high-risk country, has had suspected contact with COVID-19 or exhibits any symptoms of the disease work from home for 14 days.

The University of Maine System, in keeping with CDC guidelines, has also required students returning from travel abroad to self-isolate at home. As of Thursday, it had 21 students and one faculty member impacted by the spread of the virus and U.S. State Department and CDC travel advisories for China, South Korea and Italy, said university system spokesman Dan Demeritt in an email.

Most of the students have arrived back in the U.S. or will be in the coming days, Demeritt said, and upon the end of their self-isolation will work with the university on an integration back to campus. The faculty member is a Chinese citizen unable to leave the country due to travel restrictions and is mentoring graduate students remotely.

Freeport-based retailer L.L. Bean Inc. also has placed additional restrictions on employee activities as a precaution, according to an email from company spokeswoman Carolyn Beem. The company has suspended all international travel and is encouraging employees to avoid business travel to large gatherings such as conferences and trade shows “for the foreseeable future,” Beem said.

Bath Iron Works in late February sent home two vendors from an impacted country assigned to the structural fabrication facility in Brunswick, according to a news release from the company. It also suspended travel to the company by vendors from affected countries and brought traveling BIW employees back from Japan, requiring them to spend two weeks at home and maintain contact with the company’s medical unit.

The shipyard encourages employees to wash or sanitize their hands, avoid touching their nose or mouth and other common-sense precautions. The company has a team that meets daily to monitor the latest developments and respond accordingly.

The food service industry is also paying attention to the coronavirus, but so far it hasn’t been keeping customers away from restaurants and coffee shops.

Portland-based cafe chain Coffee By Design said starting this past Friday it would not refill personal mugs and would only serve using disposable cups and plates. It will also pay special attention to the cleaning of all frequently touched surfaces, such as counters, tables and doorknobs. Starbucks has also temporarily suspended the use of reusable mugs nationwide.

Coffee by Design co-founders Mary Allen Lindemann and Alan Spear also asked patrons feeling unwell to stay at home.

“While we cannot control the virus, we can control how we care for one another and the community,” Lindemann and Spear wrote on Facebook.

Steve DiMillo, whose family owns DiMillo’s on the Water in Portland and who is chairman of the board of the trade group Hospitality Maine, said restaurants don’t appear to be affected by the virus now, but that could change. Members are more worried, he said, about what will happen this summer if the outbreak spreads. He noted that Maine hotels and restaurants are within driving distance of 70 million people.

Lynn Tillotson of Visit Portland said her group hasn’t seen a negative impact on the upcoming tourism season.

“And we certainly don’t want to cause any unnecessary panic that could adversely affect Maine’s tourism industry,” Tillotson said. “At this time, it’s probably too soon to tell.”

Tillotson said she expects to know more in the coming weeks, but she’s optimistic given some unique aspects of Maine tourism.

“Maine’s primary visitation is from a drive market,” Tillotson said. “We hope that will insulate us from a major economic downturn and people will still feel comfortable enjoying their summer or fall vacation in Maine.”

‘BEING PROACTIVE’

The popular annual Maine Flower Show at Thompson’s Point in Portland typically draws huge crowds and could be affected by concerns about COVID-19. The gardening exhibition, scheduled for March 25-29, normally attracts more than 18,000 people, including 500 volunteers and 125 exhibitors and sellers.

“We are closely monitoring the situation as it unfolds,” said Donald Sproul, executive director of the Maine Landscape & Nursery Association and producer of the flower show.

Sproul said the flower show hasn’t received any cancellations, but organizers are preparing for the various scenarios that may unfold in the next three weeks.

The association is relying on CDC guidance and working with risk management professionals “to make sure we have a calm, safe and fun Maine Flower Show,” Sproul said. “The health and safety of our attendees, volunteers, exhibitors and members is our top concern.”

Worries about COVID-19 haven’t cooled ticket sales at the Cross Insurance Arena in Portland, one of the state’s largest entertainment and event venues.

General Manager Melanie Henkes said the venue’s parent company is taking the issue seriously, even if it hasn’t affected Maine yet. The arena hasn’t changed its practices overall but has increased the frequency of cleaning high-touch surfaces and making sure hand sanitation dispensers are full, she said.

“It is not something we are panicking over, but it would be foolish not to pay attention to what’s going on and being proactive about it,” Henkes said.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland is responding to coronavirus concerns by putting in place precautions similar to those used during flu outbreaks, but so far Masses will be held as scheduled.

The distribution of the shared consecrated wine has been suspended, and parishioners are being urged to receive Holy Communion in the hand rather than the tongue. All ministers of Holy Communion have been advised to be careful not to touch the tongue or hand of communicants as they distribute wafers, according to Dave Guthro, communications director of the diocese.

And breaking with custom, parishioners are being told not to shake hands during the Sign of Peace but instead offer a verbal greeting, smile or bow of the head. The church is asking parishioners not to hold hands during the Our Father and pray for those stricken with illness. Other precautions include requiring all ministers of Holy Communion to sanitize their hands before and after distribution and not use sponges from holy water fonts, according to Guthro.

CITIES AND TOWNS PREPARING

Municipal officials across southern Maine have been monitoring news reports and public health advisories for weeks as they prepare to ramp up preparations for a potential outbreak. In some towns, employees are preparing to work at home during an outbreak. Other municipalities are posting reminders about hand washing and making sure first responders are prepared.

In Cumberland, key town staff members were instructed to bring their laptops home and leave them there.

“(So if) we need to shut down the Town Hall, they can effectively work offsite,” said Town Manager William Shane. “We are prepared but not panicking.”

South Portland City Manager Scott Morelli posted a public notice on Thursday warning residents that “in some instances, certain non-essential city services and gatherings may need to be curtailed in the event of a widespread outbreak to prevent further infection amongst the public.”

“We’re very far from that and hopefully that doesn’t happen,” he said. “But we need to be ready to jump if we have to.”

In Scarborough, hygiene posters are scattered throughout town buildings, and public safety officials are reviewing pandemic flu plans and making sure first responders have personal protective equipment such as masks, gloves, overalls, boots and goggles. And in Cape Elizabeth, town leaders are meeting to talk about how to deal with first responders who may need to be quarantined and employees who are out sick for extended periods. They’ll also discuss the potential for a reduction in services and the possibility of canceling committee meetings and programming in town facilities such as the public library.

“Municipal officials are on the front lines and may be called upon to make important and potentially difficult decisions, such as whether to cancel a community event or close or make other changes to community facility operations,” said Tony Plante, director of municipal collaboration at the Greater Portland Council of Governments

At the same time, Plante noted, like any employer, cities and towns must be prepared to take the necessary precautions to prevent the spread of the virus and protect the community and its workforce.

To mitigate disruption of public services if there is an outbreak, they recommended urging residents to do municipal business online when possible, asking employees to take their laptops home every night and testing remote computer systems to ensure everyone has access. They also suggested taking steps now to ensure that neighbors look out for one another, especially elderly and disabled residents who might be isolated if family members or home health workers are unable to care for them.

Staff writers Peter McGuire, Kelley Bouchard and Meredith Goad contributed to this story. 


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: