CHEBEAGUE ISLAND — For island selectwoman Donna Damon, the coronavirus started getting real a few days before Maine confirmed its first case. Her daughter lives in Massachusetts and had colleagues who’d potentially been exposed to the virus at a meeting of Biogen company personnel in Boston that’s been linked to most of that state’s early cases.

That got her thinking about worst-case scenarios for Chebeague, a year-round island town of 340 and a 15-minute ferry ride from Cousins Island, which is connected by bridge to mainland Yarmouth. “Some say we don’t have to worry because we can always get our food sent down (from Portland) on the Casco Bay Line boats,” she said Thursday, just hours before Maine’s first case was confirmed in Auburn, 30 miles away. “But what if the boats don’t run?”

Ferry passengers disembark the Independence at the Chebeague Island dock. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Wednesday night, at her suggestion, the five-person select board took up the question of pandemic preparation. A preliminary assessment was reassuring – useful in itself. The 1,926-acre island – home to Maine’s youngest municipality, which broke off from Cumberland in 2007 – has four people qualified to operate the transfer station were operator Gail Jenkins to get sick. (“But nobody wants to do it!” Jenkins says with a laugh.)

The town rescue service – which with the help of the Cousins Island ferry and their counterparts in Yarmouth can get a patient to Maine Medical Center in 43 minutes – has a relatively deep roster of seven EMTs and a paramedic. And islanders – accustomed to stockpiling essentials, knowing where things come from, and looking out for one another – are probably better prepared than most of their mainland neighbors for a prolonged disruption of normal life.

Chebeague Island Selectwoman Donna Damon Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“We all know how to do stuff, because everybody lives out here with the possibility of power outages and storms,” says resident Eliza Adams. “I think there are a lot of ways to be creative out here and keep things rolling” in the event ordinary travel on the shores and islands of Casco Bay grinds to a halt.

But islands are also vulnerable, the end of the line for supply chains of almost everything save live lobster, remote from emergency rooms, and ultimately dependent on the health and resilience of the ferry operators that get supplies in and people to and from jobs, grocery stores and appointments. Whether, in the event of a widespread outbreak, this turns out to be a net advantage or disadvantage is anyone’s guess.

“Islanders for generations have been finding creative solutions to being in a remote area, which will serve them well,” says Suzanne MacDonald, chief community development officer at the Island Institute, the Rockland nonprofit that works to support the state’s 15 year-round island communities. “But it’s really fragile because resource shortages can affect islands because they’re at the end of the line.”

Ferry passengers from Chebeague Island disembark the Independence at the mainland dock on Cousins Island on Thursday. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

With the coronavirus officially becoming a pandemic last week, communities around the world have been forced to confront the tension between the need for social distancing – to prevent the virus’s spread – and our staggering degree of interdependence in a world of global supply chains, just-in-time delivery, long-distance commuting and economic specialization. This past week Chebeague residents have been doing the same, but with the advantage of having always been compelled to think about these things by the cold, stark boundary of ocean water separating their town from everything else.

Doughty’s Island Market is Chebeague Island’s lone store. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

As mainland store shelves were emptied of toilet paper, many islanders realized they have an advantage. “Right now I know that I have in my house enough food to feed 10 people for a month, because my father’s philosophy was that if you need something, buy two of it,” says Damon, a ninth-generation resident whose father’s people came to Chebeague in the early 19th century, her mother’s in the 1750s. “They always had two bales of toilet paper in the attic because when the bay freezes – which it used to on a regular basis – the boats can’t run.”

Janna Hobbs, president of the recreational center, a nonprofit with a gym, fitness center, day care and afterschool programs, notes that residents are accustomed to sharing resources. The community’s Facebook swap page is ready made for it. “All the time somebody will be asking, ‘I’m making such-and-such, and I don’t have any of this thing. Can anyone loan me some?’ or ‘Does anyone have cinderblocks? I need seven,’” she says. “The island pulls together, checks on older people, helps each other out.”

Janna Hobbs is a social worker and president of the board at the Chebeague Island Recreation Center. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

There’s the infrastructure for that, too. The island library and community center building is its emergency shelter on account of its commercial kitchen and full-building generator, both of which were put to use during the six-day outage caused by the Patriot’s Day storm in 2007. “We fed like, 150 people two or three meals a day, and it kept getting better by the end as people kept coming in with lamb chops and seafood and all the really good stuff from their freezers,” says library director Deborah Bowman. “There were just laundry baskets of food.”

One resident moved in because she needed her oxygen machine to survive. “She set right up in the library,” Bowman recalls. “We didn’t know when the power would come back on, so we ordered up an extra fuel delivery.”

On Thursday the island’s tiny convenience store still had toilet paper and freshly made chili, and owner Julie Doughty had stocked the freezers with bread in case supplies run short. The crew of the Independence, the Chebeague Transportation Co. passenger ferry to Cousins Island, had begun disinfecting railings and surfaces after every trip, instead of after each shift.

Deckhand Chuck Graham disinfects surfaces on the Independence, a passenger ferry that runs between the mainland at Cousins Island and Chebeague Island. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

But the island has vulnerabilities too. The island school – two rooms for kindergarten to fifth grade – is largely staffed by mainlanders, so any disruptions ashore would likely force it to close. The island’s superintendent and school principal, Ann Kirkpatrick, refused to speak to a reporter for this story, but the executive director of the island recreational center, Steve Auffant, said that he’d been told the school would follow the lead of Yarmouth’s schools in regards to closures, as most fifth-to-12th-graders on the island commute to attend them each day. The rec center’s day care would likely follow suit, he said, even if the island remained infection-free.

FedEx, UPS and the postal service are still delivering packages and online orders via boat, but some things can no longer be obtained. At Wednesday’s meeting, the town select board asked town administrator Marjorie Stratton to put hand sanitizer in strategic locations around town. “We couldn’t find any online or in any of the usual places,” Stratton said. Nor can the rescue service obtain more protective gear for EMTs to avoid exposure when helping infected patients. “If we have 20 people who need assistance, I’m not sure we would have enough of the right things to protect our EMS people, but that’s probably no different than on the mainland.”

Handcarts full of groceries line the stern of the Independence during a run from the mainland to Chebeague Island. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The novel coronavirus is particularly dangerous for elderly people, so protecting residents of the seven-bed Island Commons assisted-living facility has emerged as the island’s most pressing early concerns. Visits have already been curtailed, and administrator Amy Rich is planning for dire contingencies because she can’t afford not to. The most serious: What happens if a substantial number of her 13 mainland-based care workers can’t come to work either because of potential exposure or because they’re caring for children if schools and day cares are closed?

Island Commons, an assisted-living facility on Chebeague Island. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“I have a great and hardworking crew, but I worry my staff could be quickly taken out,” she says. Finding qualified staff is difficult in normal times, and if there were no longer enough people to meet regulatory requirements, she would likely be compelled to return her residents to their families and temporarily close the facility. “I just hope that doesn’t happen,” she says.


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