A group of residents from an island town in Maine cut down a tree and dragged it into the middle of a road in an attempt to forcibly quarantine three roommates they believed could have the new coronavirus after arriving from out of state, law enforcement officials said Saturday.
The tree was discovered after one of the roommates left their residence on Cripple Creek Road in Vinalhaven, an island off the coast of Maine, at about 3:30 p.m. Friday to see why the cable service wasn’t working, the Knox County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement.
“While investigating the downed tree, a neighbor started yelling at him and a group of people showed up and began to gather around,” the sheriff’s office said. “Believing the group may be there to harm him,” it added, the man fled back to the residence and alerted his roommates.
An earlier statement from the sheriff’s office said someone had reported that “several people with guns had cut down a tree and were telling them that they need to stay quarantined.”
The episode highlights how states across the country have grown leery of out-of-town license plates and visitors amid the spread of the coronavirus, as people flee cities that have been hit hard by the pandemic for vacation homes and wide-open spaces elsewhere.
In Rhode Island, police officers and National Guard members were deployed to collect contact information from out-of-state drivers at the state border and inform them they must self-quarantine. Hawaii, which thrives on tourism, is asking visitors to stay away for a month. The Outer Banks of North Carolina are shut to nonresidents. And in Alaska, almost all people, whether or not they live there, must quarantine themselves upon arrival.
The roommates in Maine used a radio to contact the Coast Guard and a drone to keep an eye on the group outside until the authorities arrived, the sheriff’s office said.
The group had dispersed by the time law enforcement arrived, the sheriff’s office added, but “it was apparent that the tree had been cut down and dragged into the roadway to block it.”
The sheriff’s office said deputies “learned that there is a general belief by some island residents that the Cripple Creek residents are supposed to be quarantined because they came here from another state and could have COVID-19,” the disease caused by the coronavirus.
But the authorities found that the three roommates had been living in Vinalhaven for about 30 days, much longer than the two-week quarantine guideline issued by public health officials, and that none of them had any symptoms of the virus.
The sheriff’s office said it was “concerned that some believe that anyone from out of the state is potentially infected and needs to be quarantined.”
“Whether someone is a Maine resident or not, they have the right to free movement and anyone who infringes upon that free movement is potentially violating the law,” it added.
Amid the coronavirus pandemic, some governors have begun placing restrictions on visitors in an effort to prevent the virus from spreading further into their states.
On Saturday, President Donald Trump said he would not impose a quarantine on New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, but would instead issue a “strong” travel advisory. Later that night, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a formal advisory, urging the residents of those three states to “refrain from nonessential domestic travel for 14 days effective immediately.”
State Rep. Genevieve McDonald, a Democrat who represents Vinalhaven, said on Facebook that “there are two guys from N.J. on Vinalhaven who have been renting a house since September while working on a construction job.”
“They went to the mainland, and were targeted because of their license plate when they arrived back on Vinalhaven,” she said.
An exchange between the roommates and some local residents “apparently didn’t go very well,” she said, adding that “a group of local vigilantes decided to take matters into their own hands, and barricade these guys into their rental property.”
McDonald called the commotion “a tremendous waste of resources,” noting that it had drawn a response from several officials.
“Now is not the time to develop or encourage an ‘us vs. them’ mentality,” she said. “Targeting people because of their license plates will not serve any of us well.”
McDonald added that “except for in the most extreme circumstances, we do not have the authority to control the movement of U.S. citizens within our borders.”
She signed off the note with simple instructions: “Stay home, wash your hands, don’t talk to strangers, and don’t waste the time of our first responders.”