CLIFF ISLAND, Maine — In different times, a taxi met visitors at the wharf to take them to any destination on this H-shaped island’s dirt roads.
Few visitors come now. But the taxi is still parked up the road with its back window emblazoned with a simple message in bold yellow lettering: “Sorry! No Taxi Service Due to COVID-19.”
It is one of the most immediately visible ways that life has changed on the island in Casco Bay that is part of Maine’s largest city, but is a remote last stop on the ferry from the mainland. Cliff Island has yet to see a confirmed case of the coronavirus in nearly a year since the pandemic arrived in Maine, infecting more than 45,000 statewide and more than 3,700 in Portland.
That is a distinction few others can boast and the Cliff Island’s roughly 45 year-round residents want to keep. North Haven, which briefly attempted to ban outside visitors when the pandemic began, saw 15 cases in a week last fall. Swans Island, the lobstering village off the Blue Hill Peninsula with a population of about 320, saw its first confirmed case just a few weeks ago.
Low population is one factor that has helped some island communities skirt the worst of the virus so far. But Cliff Island’s success also reflects the strength of residents’ collective decisions to prioritize public health and community efforts that enabled more vulnerable islanders to avoid their typically common trips to the mainland while vital services continued.
From left (clockwise): The entrance to Cliff Island with posted coronavirus guidelines; The Casco Bay Lines ferry approaches Cliff Island the morning of March 4; The Casco Bay Lines ferry prepares to depart from Cliff Island the morning of March 4; Cheryl Crowley, a longtime Cliff Island resident, gives a tour of the H-shaped island the morning of March 4. Credit: Natalie Williams | BDN
“We were hunkered down here,” said Cheryl Crowley, a longtime Cliff Island resident active in several initiatives to help sustain the island’s year-round population.
Cliff Island’s population, like Maine’s as a whole, skews older. Taxi driver Chester Pettengill, who is also custodian of the one-room schoolhouse with only three students and meets the ferry each day to bring mail from the dock to the post office, is in his 80s. He was the “inspiration” for other islanders to take the virus seriously, Crowley said.
Some Maine towns saw a rush of visitors with the onset of the pandemic last spring, but Cliff Island residents wrote letters to longtime summer visitors asking them to delay trips to minimize risk. Between fewer visitors and trips to the mainland, passenger revenue to Cliff Island last year was down 29 percent through November, according to Casco Bay Lines, which operates ferries to the seven islands off the coast of Portland. Cliff Island is one of two major islands in the harbor — Great Diamond Island being the other — that have recorded no virus cases.
The seasonal Cliff Island Store is the island’s sole business, with residents usually traveling to the mainland for groceries and other necessities. To dissuade that, Crowley, along with her husband and daughters, use a Google spreadsheet to track requests. There are printed forms for the residents who do not use computers to handwrite their orders.
They worked with Hope MacVane, the seasonal store’s owner, to order in bulk from Portland-area distributors, which ship the groceries by ferry to the island. Crowley and her daughters divide them up at the community center, allowing families to pick them up in a socially distanced manner. Volume was highest early in the pandemic, but the effort continues.
MacVane never officially reopened the island store last summer. The business usually serves islanders as well as tourists who stop on a ferry or stay for longer in a rental home. Not wanting to encourage crowds, MacVane expanded grocery deliveries by switching to an online store in the summer, making it possible to turn around orders quicker. The community was supportive.
From left (clockwise): Residents walk down one of the dirt roads on Cliff Island on March 4. There are no paved roads on the H-shaped island; The coastline of Cliff Island is pictured on March 4; A Casco Bay Lines employee brings in the ramp onto the ferry while stopped at Cliff Island on March 4. Credit: Natalie Williams | BDN
“One of our big goals was, how do we keep us safe, but also how do we keep islanders safe?” she said. “And part of opening would mean that we would have people coming on to the public wharf to come up to the store.”
As the pandemic persisted into the fall, virus precautions yielded benefits for its youngest residents. Elementary schools on Cliff Island and Peaks Island are the only two city schools that have been open for in-person learning five days a week since September.
“The benefits are exponential,” said Kelly Hasson, the teacher leader for both schools.
In-person learning and a lack of confirmed cases still come with health precautions. Island schools shut down like all others in March of last year, then upgraded ventilation systems over the summer before students returned. On Cliff Island, teacher Jenny Baum set up tables outdoors last fall, enabling students to learn outside for several months before cold weather forced them back into the one-room schoolhouse.
From left (clockwise): Cliff Island School students search for items such as birch bark, feathers and lichens outside their one-room schoolhouse on March 4; Teacher Jenny Baum (right) talks about teaching on Cliff Island as her students approach her; First-grader Fiona Anderson (left) and third-grader Chloe Blonquist look for various objects outdoors during a school activity on March 4; Fourth-grader Edward Anderson climbs in a tree at the end of the school day on Cliff Island on March 4. Credit: Natalie Williams | BDN
Though the temperature barely cracked 20 degrees on a sunny Thursday, the school’s three students spent the last half-hour of their day on a “treasure hunt” for lichen, birch bark and other natural objects found around the schoolhouse. Engaging with the island, Baum said, helps offset some of the loss of in-person connection due to the pandemic.
The students no longer take a ferry to the elementary school on nearby Long Island twice a week and art classes are by Zoom rather than having a teacher visit from the mainland. They wrote letters to the island’s veterans for Veteran’s Day and made evergreen sprays for winter residents for Christmas.
Baum, originally from New York City and in her third year teaching on Cliff Island, says she feels “very fortunate” to be teaching here during the pandemic. She leaves sparingly, not wanting to risk her health or that of her students.
Many of Cliff Island’s oldest residents rarely left, too. But some recently got on the ferry to Long Island for their first COVID-19 vaccinations. After Maine expanded eligibility to people aged 60 and older, Crowley was busy again, helping eligible residents to find appointments.
MacVane, who is from the island but now lives on the mainland and works as a teacher most of the year, has not been back to Cliff Island since closing the store last fall. Her parents still live there, but the family has tried to avoid large gatherings due to the pandemic.
She misses it, following along with live feed cameras until she can return.
“It’s a special place,” she said. “It holds a special place in so many hearts.”