Main Street and Washington Street in Sanford, reflected in a window on Thursday. That night the City Council voted to require people to wear face coverings in all public settings where social distancing isn’t possible. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Thea Murphy, who lives in downtown Sanford and used to run the Trafton Senior Center, said she’s disappointed by what’s happening in her city.

“I would hope folks who weren’t paying attention before might step up to the plate,” Murphy said Friday.

Over the last few weeks, York County has emerged as a COVID-19 hot spot, with Sanford as its epicenter. Although the case counts are still relatively low, the city’s total has more than doubled in just three weeks. A handful of outbreaks, which state health officials do not believe are connected, have confirmed that community spread is well underway in the former mill city of about 20,000 residents. The testing positivity rate in Sanford alone is roughly four times the statewide rate.

Murphy said it’s hard not to think many Sanford residents simply got complacent after six months of dealing with the pandemic. She said she feels most for the kids, who had to wait an extra week for school to start because of concerns.

“I certainly think the council coming out so strongly is a good message,” she said.

Murphy was referring to Thursday’s unanimous vote by the City Council to adopt a local ordinance that strengthens the governor’s executive order on face coverings in public by giving the police department more enforcement authority, including the go-ahead to issue fines and even suspend business license for noncompliance.

The emergency meeting was held two days after a regular council meeting that featured closing remarks from Mayor Tom Cote, in the form of an impassioned plea to residents to take the coronavirus threat more seriously.

On Friday, Cote’s phone was still blowing up with calls and emails and not just from people in the Sanford, either. Overwhelmingly, he said, the comments have been positive, but – this being America, where even pandemic response is polarizing – not everyone liked what he said.

“I’ve heard from people who don’t believe the science, from people who think the way out is herd immunity, from people who say the government is lying to you,” he said by phone Friday, fresh from a morning surf. “Some of it is about liberty and I understand all that, but I think we have a personal responsibility to everyone else in our community.”

A sign in the storefront of the Sanford Mainers expresses the frustration of having to cancel the season. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Residents who have been unnerved about the ease with which the coronavirus has spread hope what their city is going through now serves as a wake-up call.

State Rep. Anne-Marie Mastraccio, whose district includes part of Sanford, said the city had been doing so well with the virus until a few weeks ago.

“Maybe people felt it was OK to let their guard down,” she said. “But I also think there have been people who thought their personal liberties were more important than the collective.”

One of Sanford’s outbreaks is at the Calvary Baptist Church, whose pastor, Todd Bell, has openly and loudly defied the state’s requirements for face coverings and physical distancing at church services. Bell also officiated at an Aug. 7 wedding in the Millinocket area, where masks were not commonplace, that has now been linked to 161 cases and three deaths.

But Cote said Bell is far from alone. He said among the people he’s heard from in the last few days are those who don’t want to shop in Sanford anymore because too many people are unmasked. In nearby Wells, Ogunquit and Kennebunk, he said, mask compliance is far greater. Mastraccio admitted that she has avoided a grocery store in town for several weeks because she doesn’t feel safe. Late Friday, the parent company of Shaw’s supermarkets announced that two employees at the Sanford store had tested positive for COVID-19.

On Saturday, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported that there are now 10 COVID-19 cases associated with an Aug. 31 funeral and reception in the Sanford area, and that some of those now infected who attended the wedding and reception later went to social clubs, potentially exposing others to the virus.

A sign on a tobacco and beverage store in Sanford urges customers to wear masks. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Public health experts agree – and a growing body of research supports this – that face coverings can dramatically reduce the risk of the virus spreading. But masks have become something of a political fault line, with conservatives and supporters of President Trump far less likely to believe the science. In 2016, York County as a whole favored Democrat Hillary by a 47-43 percent vote over Trump, but Trump carried Sanford 46-43 percent.

Cote said the same people who are complaining about losing business are often the same people who resist masks – not realizing that the two are connected.

State Rep. Patricia Hymanson, whose district includes part of Sanford but also Wells, Ogunquit and York, said “Sanford is the most lax in their behavior. That’s absolutely true.”

Barbara Gagne, who manages Family Dollar in Sanford, said employees there have refused service to customers who won’t wear masks. On Thursday, she had to ask a group of young people to leave.

Debbie Cary, who owns Downeast Flowers on Main Street, said Friday that if things get worse in Sanford, she’ll considering going back to curbside-only business.

She hopes the council’s mask ordinance is met positively but said her customers have been good.

Calvary Baptist Church in Sanford has become a focus of concern for public health officials. Pastor Todd Bell has flouted state guidance on face coverings and social distancing. He also officiated at a Millinocket wedding that’s now linked to 161 virus cases and three deaths. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

“I think we’ve only had one person storm out angry,” she said.

At Wilbur G. Shaw Hardware on Main Street, owner Richard Cote said he has customers who don’t wear masks “for health reasons.” He said he doesn’t believe the ordinance will affect those customers because both the state’s order and the local ordinance mandate masks in places where physical distancing isn’t possible.

“We’ve never loaded up with 50 or more people anyway,” he said. “So distancing is quite easy to do.”

Asked if the recent outbreaks have prompted a shift in the city’s collective mood, Cote (who’s not related to the mayor) said he didn’t think so.

“I think people that were generally concerned before are still concerned, perhaps more so,” he said. “Other people I think generally want to keep riding this out and go about their lives.”

Richard Stanley, president of the Sanford/Springvale Chamber of Commerce, agreed with Mayor Cote that there is a business incentive if more of the community wears masks. He, too, has heard of residents who are shopping elsewhere.

“I do think we all need to step up and do our share,” he said. “I was in a store (Thursday) and there was a lady in front of me who didn’t have a mask on. It was a small store and I walked away.”

The still unanswered question is whether businesses will feel more empowered to enforce the mask mandate in light of the new ordinance.

“I do think most businesses will buy in,” Stanley said.

Stanley said when he was growing up, he never wore a seat belt. He said it wasn’t until it became mandatory that he started to buckle up. Now, he couldn’t imagine not doing so.

“I think you get conditioned after a while and I think that’s where we need to get with masks until this is over,” he said.

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