They clustered together in the restaurant of the Big Moose Inn and spilled into the small lobby, their numbers exceeding the state’s 50-person cap for indoor events during the coronavirus pandemic, state health officials would later declare. They weren’t keeping much distance from each other, other hotel guests noticed, or wearing masks.
It wasn’t until the next day that one of them reported having symptoms of the coronavirus. Soon others did, too. By the end of August, officials with the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention had linked at least 87 cases to the wedding — including outbreaks at a jail and a nursing home in York County, more than 200 miles away. And the outbreak turned deadly.
Like a biotech conference in Boston, a college bar in Michigan and a choir practice in Washington state, the wedding became what’s known as a “superspreading event” — probably sparked by a single, highly infectious individual who showed no signs of illness and unwittingly shared an enclosed space with many others. The phenomenon occurs when one infection spawns a disproportionate number of others. Maine CDC Director Nirav Shah described it as “a series of concentric rings that get built out, all emanating from this one Aug. 7 event.”
The wedding outbreak is especially resonant in America’s rural communities, where gatherings are a lifeline and where, some public health experts fear, the lack of significant virus transmission may have lulled residents into a false sense of complacency. Fewer health-care resources mean that if an outbreak strikes, it can be especially devastating.
“All the things that make rural America more vulnerable to any kind of disturbance of the equilibrium are magnified tenfold when you’re thinking about covid-19,” Shah said. “People tend to congregate in small groups in rural areas where they know each other, and that’s one of the things that makes rural areas great. But when it comes to covid, it means that it can rip through a rural area like wildfire.”
That has proved true in Millinocket, a close-knit town of about 4,500 once known for its thriving paper mill. Even 12 years after the mill closed, taking jobs and tax dollars with it, most people in town have some connection to it. The population has fallen by half, but with Maine’s highest peak as a backdrop, Millinocket’s natural beauty is a powerful draw for tourists and residents who remain.
The community had fared better than many parts of the country as the pandemic raged, with Town Manager John Davis saying there were “no cases in town before this.” The closest confirmed infections were a town away. Maine has a low average number of new cases, Shah said, and the lowest hospitalization rate in the country.
Now, Millinocket’s town hall is closed to the public, and its police department is responding to non-emergency calls by phone only.
The school board voted Tuesday to push back the start of classes two weeks, with two of five members voting against reopening for in-person instruction at all. Neighboring East Millinocket also delayed classes after two students and six staff members were confirmed to be infected with the virus.
Overnight, Millinocket Regional Hospital saw testing leap from an average of 20 to 25 per day to 100 per day. Administrators there began temporarily limiting services to essential medical care.
“What should have been lasting memories of a perfect day will be forever tainted by this awful virus and its aftermath,” the hospital’s chief executive, Bob Peterson, said in a statement. “We all must make sacrifices until this virus is under control and that certainly includes gatherings that can be postponed until a safer time.”
One infection turned fatal. A woman who died Aug. 21 was not at the event but is thought to have been infected by someone who attended, according to Millinocket Regional Hospital. Theresa Dentremont’s husband, 97-year-old Battle of the Bulge survivor Frank Dentremont, is at the same facility being treated for the virus, his son said.
“I had heard the stories about the wedding thing,” said Frank Dentremont Jr. of Gulf Shores, Ala. “I thought, ‘My dad and stepmom weren’t there. They’ve been quarantining themselves; they’ll be fine.’ Who could have known?”
In the kind of town where everyone knows everyone and many families go back generations, the virus’s sudden hold has disrupted the usual sense of security and has made neighbors fearful of one another.
Patsy Huston, a 71-year-old seamstress and lifelong Millinocket resident, used to feel relatively protected from the virus’s reach. As places such as New York were hit hard, she took comfort knowing that the closest city, Bangor, was more than 70 miles away. Her head spun when she heard about the wedding and the infections that followed.
“I started thinking, ‘Oh my word, what if I was around them? What if I’m going to pass this on?’ ” Huston recalled.
She said she knows three families who have at least one infection. She has been dropping off food, she said, and “I’ve prayed more.”
It’s the kind of thing that “can tear these communities apart,” said Dora Anne Mills, chief health improvement officer at the state’s largest health-care system, MaineHealth, and former director of the Maine CDC. “It’s hard when you can’t trust people,” she added, “especially because rural communities are so tightly knit — and based on trust and relationships.”
The account of the fateful wedding day emerges from state health records and state officials, as well as from an interview with a guest at the inn and a statement from Big Moose.
State officials are still investigating what unfolded, but they issued an “imminent health hazard” citation on Aug. 20 to the Big Moose Inn. The citation faulted the venue on three counts: allowing too many people to congregate, failing to implement measures to maintain six feet of distance between them and neglecting to get contact information about wedding guests.
In the statement, the operators of Big Moose acknowledged they “did make an error in the interpretation” of the rules governing capacity. The inn’s staff, the statement said, has “worked hard to follow all of the rules to the best of our understanding since we opened for the season on May 22,” and employees wear masks and have increased cleaning.
“While we cannot be sure the virus was fully spread at our facility, we know that there are things that we can be doing better,” the inn’s statement said.
“Our hearts go out to the family, those affected by the virus who were at the wedding, and those who have been impacted since then,” the statement said.
Rich Zaker, who said he was staying at the inn Aug. 7, was alarmed at the sight of the wedding party.
“The big thing we noticed was that everybody was close together and there were no masks,” Zaker said. “In fact, my wife said, ‘I didn’t see anybody wearing a mask.’ ”
Shah said the outbreak — Maine’s first linked to a social gathering — had raised thorny questions about enforcement as much of the nation returns to some level of activity.
“In the face of a gathering limit of 50 people, what do you do in that situation?” he asked. “Who’s accountable? Who’s liable? Are we going after brides and grooms now?”
For now, the newlyweds have not been publicly identified. A pastor who said he officiated the ceremony defended it in social media posts, telling critics to “know the facts before you draw conclusions.” The pastor appeared to have locked down some of his social media accounts by the end of the month, and the couple’s wedding page vanished from the Internet. Attempts to interview the pastor, the couple and their families were unsuccessful.
A friend said in a Facebook post that they were “being treated by their community like mass murderers,” claiming the local media was spreading misinformation and hyping the virus.
There has been vitriol from some online — insults and anger in comments left on the social media pages of those who attended and on local news articles. Others have been more sympathetic, especially as the focus remains on containing the outbreak.
Davis, the town manager, said he “didn’t want to criticize anybody,” that he thought people were now taking more precautions and that “it happened, and we’re going to get through it.” Huston said she was “more concerned for the health of this town than I am for the blame.”
Dentremont Jr. is mourning his stepmother, a “vivacious woman and wonderful mom” who loved quilting and gave handmade tree skirts and coverlets as Christmas gifts. He’s asking that cards be sent to his father, who lived through the Great Depression and World War II, spent his career at the paper mill and has said he wants to celebrate his 100th birthday with a spaghetti dinner at the town hall. His goal has been to live to 103, though, his son said, “he’ll never give me an answer as to why.”
Even as he comes face to face with the consequences, the younger Dentremont said he is not angry with those who went forward with the wedding.
“Nobody did this consciously,” he said. “If they knew they were the ones at fault, I’m sure they’d feel terrible.”
That, Mills said, is exactly the problem with such an event.
“It’s a silent guest at the wedding,” she said. “It spreads silently, so that by the time you realize that you yourself have spread it, you’ve already done the damage.”