ALONG THE SOUTHERN MAINE COAST − For thousands of Maine tourists this summer, a friendly face and the offer of a mask was part of their seaside reverie.
That’s because of an innovative “Keep Maine Healthy Ambassador” program launched by the state and Maine’s community colleges. The program, part of Governor Janet Mills’ Keep Maine Healthy initiative, was aimed at keeping Mainers and the state’s summer visitors informed about COVID-19 health protocols.
A small cadre of ambassadors, trained at the community colleges and paid by the Greater Portland Council of Governments, have handed out 1,648 masks and made contact with 4,754 visitors so far this summer. The ambassadors are dispatched mostly to beachside areas along Old Orchard Beach, with occasional forays into nearby beach areas.
“Getting out there and talking to visitors directly was very successful,” said Charlie Collins, the deputy executive director of workforce training at the Maine Community College System. “Visitors appreciated the effort and hopefully the ambassadors contributed to raising awareness about COVID-19 safety measures and keeping the COVID-19 infection rate down this summer.”
Adjusted for population, Maine has the 3rd lowest number of positive cases, the 3rd lowest hospitalizations and the 8th lowest deaths due to COVID-19 in the nation, as of August 25.
The ambassadors’ work is largely done at this point, but some ambassadors will continue to work through the end of September.
Armed with masks and health information flyers to hand out, the ambassadors would walk around the Old Orchard Beach Pier area, the downtown district and visit area campgrounds and hotels, introducing themselves and asking if anyone needed information or masks.
“We’re seeing a lot more people wearing masks now. I feel like we’re making a difference,” said ambassador Una Huang, of Portland. “It feels quite meaningful.”
Another ambassador, Tracy Taylor, said people are starting to recognize them around town.
“We’re also getting people coming up and asking: ‘Are you the ones with the masks?’ It’s kind of neat,” said Taylor, who just completed her associates degree in Health Sciences at Southern Maine Community College and is enrolled this fall at Husson University.
According to data collected by the ambassadors, their busiest days were in mid-August when they interacted with about 650 people a day. And the ambassadors didn’t just give – they kept track of people’s reactions and got 517 “thank yous.”
Maine’s seven community colleges have the lowest tuition and fees in New England and offer nearly 300 career and transfer programs of study, customized training for business and industry, and continuing education. Each fall, MCCS enrolls some 17,000 students. Annually, the seven colleges serve more than 27,000 individuals through degree programs, customized training, and opportunities for lifelong learning.