AUGUSTA, Maine — Warning that “more people will die,” Gov. Janet Mills on Tuesday ordered Mainers to stay home except to shop for necessities or to go to jobs deemed essential through April, putting Maine among a majority of states to take similar action to fight the coronavirus.
The Democratic governor has taken a step-by-step approach on actions limiting social contact since Maine announced its first confirmed case of the virus less than three weeks ago. She declared an emergency in mid-March and later banned dine-in restaurant service and social gatherings of more than 10. Last week, she closed public-facing nonessential businesses.
Last Tuesday, Mills closed public-facing nonessential businesses. Since then, the number of confirmed cases in Maine rose from 118 to 305 and Maine has reported its first five deaths from the virus. Mills’ order will take effect Thursday, placing Maine among a group of 29 states that have issued stay-at-home orders, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
“This virus will continue to sicken people across our state. Our cases will only grow, and more people will die,” Mills said at a news conference. “I say this to be direct, to be as honest with you as I can because saving lives will depend on us.”
Mills did not cite any particular reason why the order came on Thursday, but said she had been consulting with other governors in recent weeks and watching to see when the right time would be for Maine. She said the shift was “not because of noncompliance” with distancing recommendations, but because Maine must “make them explicit and unambiguous.”
The governor mandated Mainers not leave home except for essential jobs or purchases, though they can exercise outdoors while keeping at least 6 feet from people outside their household. Businesses including grocery stores, pharmacies and health care providers will stay open. People can travel to care for family. The order limits the use of public transportation for anything but essential purposes and limits vehicle travel to people in the same household.
Portland and South Portland issued similar orders last week that include fines for if people caught violating the order. A governor’s emergency orders can be enforced by police and violations can be prosecuted as a misdemeanor crime, though there have been no reports of enforcement so far. Mills said she hopes compliance will be voluntary.
Mills’ order also carried significant restrictions for stores allowed to remain open. Convenience stores must limit the number of customers in the store at one time to five. Grocery stores such as Hannaford must limit them to 75. Large stores including Walmart must limit them to 100 while installing protective shields between customers and clerks.
Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Nirav Shah said Tuesday his department was working with the governor’s office as to whether it should extend Mills’ order to close nonessential businesses, which was set to expire next week but is now extended to be in line with Mills’ most recent order.
Shah said it was “almost inevitable” the virus would spread to every part of the state. But he also said population density plays a part in the spread of the virus, echoing a previous statement that “Maine is not Manhattan.” It referred to New York City’s status as an outbreak epicenter and a population in Manhattan more than 20 times denser than Portland.
Shah told reporters on Tuesday that “we have to keep compliance in mind” when considering such measures, and noted the state has not determined whether its social distancing recommendations are having an effect. He noted that research using cellphone data has shown Mainers sharply decreased travel since the first case was recorded here.
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