The first Friday in August outside the Tri Town Baptist Church was one of those quintessential summer Maine days. Midday temperatures reached the high 70s. A bay of spruce trees rose up behind the tiny Millinocket church, the green lawn spread before it. A perfect day for a young couple’s wedding.
Cars filled the gravel parking lot and dozens of wedding guests — young and old, locals and out-of-towners — packed the church pews. After a long spring and summer, finally there was an occasion worth celebrating.
At the ceremony’s end, the crowd headed to the Big Moose Inn, a lodge and restaurant sandwiched between the Ambajejus and Millinocket lakes. Each guest had his or her temperature checked at the door, and once cleared, went inside to feast on rib-eye and duck, toast the couple, and dance for hours. Few of the 62 wedding and reception attendees wore masks.
Twenty-three miles away from the festivities, Frank and Theresa Dentremont spent the evening nestled in a wood cabin near sleepy Cedar Lake. The elderly Millinocket natives had spent much of the last four months at the secluded home that Frank had steadily renovated over the years, first hooking it to the electrical grid and recently installing skylights. Friends sent food and a caregiver stopped by to take care of Theresa, whose health had deteriorated in recent years. At 97 and 83, the couple qualified as high risk for coronavirus infection and weren’t taking any chances.
Still, the pandemic, in many ways, seemed like a far off phenomenon — largely confined to cities such as Boston, five hours south and lacking the space and quiet of Millinocket. Only about 150 people had been infected in the neighboring counties of Penobscot and Piscataquis over the last six months. Millinocket itself had not recorded a single case.
“The town had basically not any experience with it at all,” said Frank Boynton, the superintendent of the Millinocket schools.
One celebration would change all that. The virus had begun to sweep through the community, and well beyond it. An unidentified wedding guest reported feeling symptoms a day after the ceremony. Within four days, several others fell ill, according to state authorities. In all, nearly half of the attendees, 30 in all who ranged in age from 4 to 78 years old, would test positive. By then, this all-too-familiar ripple effect was already headed far beyond the Big Moose Inn.
Over the next three weeks, the virus trickled into the East Millinocket school system. It leapt 220 miles downstate to a county jail. It wove its way into a rehabilitation center 100 miles from the wedding venue. And it crept into the Dentremonts’ isolated Cedar Lake cabin.
An area that had been almost entirely unaffected by the global pandemic was suddenly a hot spot, the largest outbreak in Maine to date. As the wedding made international headlines, those who participated, including the bride and groom, went silent, many of their social media profiles switched to private. They did not respond to requests for comment from the Globe.
Theresa Dentremont, a longtime native of the area, died on August 21, two weeks after the wedding, at the Millinocket Regional Hospital following a brief battle with COVID-19. She’d barely mixed with the outside world. But authorities said she fell ill after coming into contact with an infected wedding guest. Her stepson told the Globe he didn’t want to speculate about the origin. She is the only death linked to the wedding. Her husband, Frank Dentremont, was hospitalized with the disease two days later. The World War II veteran, who endured the Battle of the Bulge and worked for 35 years at the Millinocket paper mill, remains on oxygen and a course of antiviral drug therapy, according to his son.
As of Friday, Maine authorities had linked 123 positive cases to the August 7 wedding, with a quarter labeled as tertiary cases, meaning they were infected by someone who was infected by someone who attended the wedding. On Saturday, the Maine Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced it was also investigating an outbreak at the Calvary Baptist Church 225 miles away in Sanford, where the officiant who presided over the wedding, Todd Bell, is pastor. There are at least five confirmed cases of the coronavirus among those affiliated with the church, the CDC said.
“What we are dealing with is a giant tube of glitter. You open a tube of glitter in your basement, then two weeks later you are in the attic and all you find is glitter and have no idea how it got there,” Dr. Nirav Shah, the Maine CDC director, said in a Tuesday briefing.
The outbreak has upended the two riverside towns of Millinocket and East Millinocket, which sit in the shadows of Mount Katahdin and were devastated by the closure of the twin paper mills, in 2008 and 2014. Of the 228 coronavirus cases recorded in Penobscot County, one third have been reported in the last two weeks.
The consequences have affected nearly every aspect of life: The Millinocket Regional Hospital has suspended all elective surgeries and postponed all appointments and procedures that can be safely pushed back. A local Elks lodge has closed and banks and credit unions have shut their lobbies. The Millinocket Town Hall is shuttered to the public. Even the schools have had to change their plans.
Eric Steeves, superintendent of the East Millinocket schools, woke up a week after the wedding with a headache and chills. He dismissed the symptoms as a result of back-to-school stress. Steeves can see the Big Moose Inn from his porch, but he had not attended the wedding, and he is not a member of the Tri-Town Baptist Church.
“We’re very isolated up here and [coronavirus] really had not [had] much of an impact,” Steeves said. “There was a complacency in our whole area.”
Indeed, the state had marked Penobscot County as “green,” meaning there was a low risk of COVID-19 and students could likely return to school in person. The seclusion and self-dependence of Millinocket seemed to insulate it from the pandemic’s perils. But after the wedding, it became clear that in small towns built on close personal connections, those virtues could be hazards, too.
A person hired to provide entertainment at the wedding also worked as a teacher in East Millinocket. Some school staff had been in and out of the school buildings to prepare for the fall and community members had gathered for a school board meeting in the days after the wedding.
A week after he started experiencing symptoms, a test confirmed Steeves was COVID-positive. In all, six East Millinocket school staff members and two students have confirmed infections, according to Steeves. Faced with a rising number of cases, the school board voted unanimously this past week to delay the beginning of school for one week and to begin remotely after that.
A few miles down the road in Millinocket, officials decided to delay school openings for two weeks. It remains unclear how many people connected to the schools were infected in total.
Many locals are particularly worried about the town’s senior population. Rural areas are at high risk for serious consequences from COVID infection because they tend to have older populations and higher rates of pre-existing conditions. Frank Dentremont, who remains in the hospital, was recently recognized as the oldest resident of East Millinocket.
Contact tracing efforts revealed that people hundreds of miles away were also at risk.
An outbreak at the York County Jail in Alfred, located 220 miles south of Millinocket, is believed to have originated from an employee who attended the wedding. There are 54 positive cases at the jail. Of those cases, 19 are jail staff members and 35 are incarcerated people.
Another outbreak at Maplecrest Rehabilitation Center, over 100 miles southeast of the wedding venue, has also been linked to Millinocket, with four staff members and five residents falling ill The Maine CDC said it determined that an employee had been infected by a parent whose child had attended the wedding.
Meanwhile, at the Big Moose Inn, the venue of the wedding reception, two staff members have tested positive. The inn maintains that the employees were infected by a source unrelated to the wedding and that they were not present the night of the reception.
The lodge was issued an “imminent health hazard” notice by the state following an Aug. 18 state inspector’s report that found that in addition to the 62 wedding guests, the inn also allowed more than 40 unrelated guests to dine on the deck and at the bar, bringing the total occupancy to over 100. While staff wore masks, most guests did not. The state has a 50-person limit for indoor gatherings as part of its coronavirus restrictions. The notice warned the inn to comply with restrictions in the future but allowed it to stay open.
A follow-up inspection led to a temporary suspension of the inn’s lodging and dining license, but it was reinstated on Friday after it “corrected all public health hazards cited,” according to the Maine CDC.
A kitchen employee who declined to be named for fear of retribution said she only found out about the infections a week after the reception, through a phone call from a co-worker. A guest unrelated to the wedding who dined at the inn on Aug. 7 also told the Portland Press-Herald he found out about the outbreak on the news.
“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. We have given the Maine CDC our word, and we are giving our community and guests that same word that we will do — and are doing — better. We are updating our protocols as advised by the Maine CDC and will continue to keep our staff, community, and guests’ health and safety as our top priority,” Big Moose Inn owner Laurie Cormier said in a statement Friday.
Those closest to the wedding, including the couple who married, have remained silent since news of the outbreak broke. Sunday services at the Tri Town Baptist Church have been moved online. Several requests by the Globe to reach the pastor, David Blaisdell, have gone unanswered.
Bell, the officiant of the wedding who leads Calvary Baptist in Sanford, continued to hold in-person services, according to his Facebook page. The CDC said anyone who attended those services, or the church’s vacation Bible school, was potentially exposed. Bell did not respond to requests for comment.
A pilot, Bell posted a photo of himself in a small airplane Aug. 6 with the caption: “Flying out to marry a couple in Northern Maine!” Another Twitter user commented on his feed that the Big Moose Inn wedding has since been linked to a person’s death.
The pastor’s response: “Proverbs 18:21 (KJV) Death and life [are] in the power of the tongue: and they that love it shall eat the fruit thereof. Know the facts before you draw conclusions…”