Gov. Janet Mills speaks during a March 12 news conference at the State House with Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty | AP

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On Tuesday, Trump administration officials warned that as many as 240,000 Americans could die from the coronavirus pandemic that is spreading across the country and world. “This could be a hell of a bad two weeks and maybe even three weeks,” President Donald Trump said bluntly during a press briefing.

As Dr. Deborah Birx, the head of the White House coronavirus task force, reminded Americans during the briefing: “There is no magic bullet. There’s no magic vaccine. It’s behaviors.”

[Our COVID-19 tracker contains the most recent information on Maine cases by county]

Those behaviors require that people stay apart, not just 6 feet apart, but truly physically isolated from one another so that the coronavirus isn’t spread from person to person through coughs, sneezes and touching.

To this end, Gov. Janet Mills on Tuesday issued an order for Mainers to stay home through the end of April, unless they are going to work for an essential business, going to get groceries or other necessities, going to a medical appointment or going to recreate, still at a distance from others.

The order, which takes effect Thursday morning, also requires essential businesses to take measures, such as limiting the number of people allowed in a store at one time and installing protective shields between clerks and customers, to protect their customers and workers from the COVID-19 virus.

This is a ratcheting up of orders that Mills had previously issued. Last week, she called for the closure of all public-facing non-essential businesses. Previously, she had banned dine-in restaurant service and social gatherings of more than 10.

Maine is now 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.”

As of Wednesday, 344 Mainers had tested positive for coronavirus. Seven have died; 80 have recovered. The disease has been found in 13 of Maine’s 16 counties.

Mills said the stronger order was “not because of noncompliance” with distancing recommendations, but because Maine must “make them explicit and unambiguous.”

And, the message is explicit and unambiguous: Stay home! As we’ve noted earlier, the concept of “social distancing” was new and unfamiliar to people. So, many thought that as long as they stayed the recommended 6 feet away from other people, they could largely go about their regular routine.

As the number of coronavirus cases in Maine and America continue to climb, it should be increasingly clear that this isn’t enough. The appropriate next step, then, was Mills’ stay-at-home order. She also said she would soon issue an order insisting that people returning to or traveling to Maine quarantines themselves for the CDC-recommended 14 days.

It is important for people to remember that staying at home doesn’t just reduce their risk of contracting coronavirus, it reduces the risk for everyone. Many people with the illness have no symptoms or mild symptoms, yet if they interact with or are near other people, they can spread the illness. The only way to prevent this spread is to isolate people from one another.

There is some evidence that such restrictions are working. The New York Times reported that thermometer maker Kinsa Health has been tracking fever readings across the country based on data from its internet-connected thermometers. Their data show that fever readers are dropping, especially on the east and west coasts, where stay-at-home orders have been more stringent. State public health officials and researchers say Kinsa’s data mesh with their own.

“I’m very impressed by this,” Dr. William Schaffner, a preventive medicine expert at Vanderbilt University, told the Times. “It looks like a way to prove that social distancing works.”

“But it does show that it takes the most restrictive measures to make a real difference,” he added.

And, that brings us back to Mills’ order and the need for increasingly restrictive measures as the number of coronavirus cases in Maine continues to grow.

In recent weeks, Mills has ably walked the fine line of protecting the health of Mainers while trying to minimize what are likely to be devastating impacts on many of the state’s businesses. In press briefings, she has been forceful yet optimistic, setting the tone for Mainers.

On Tuesday, her message — matching the reality of the coronavirus threat — was more urgent.

“I implore you,” Mills said at the end of her press conference on Tuesday, “look to yourself, your family, your friends, your loved ones, your neighbors on the front lines, first responders and health care workers fighting the virus, those who can’t stay home; the children who live around the corner, the farmer who grows your food, the grocer and the pharmacist who sell you goods, the teachers who are missing their kids; the fisherman, the sailor, the truck driver, the janitor, the waitress at your favorite diner; these are the people you are protecting by staying home. This is who you are saving.”