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AUGUSTA, Maine — Hundreds of conservatives rallied outside the Blaine House on Monday to protest coronavirus restrictions from Gov. Janet Mills that have polled well but led to anxiety in rural areas with fewer confirmed cases of the virus.
Some protesters wore masks, which organizers had suggested as a way to signal willingness to comply with social distancing guidelines, but many lined the corner of Capitol and State streets in close proximity as cars drove between the governor’s mansion and the State House.
Many waved flags or wore hats supporting President Donald Trump. One car carried a sign that said “34 dead ≠ 90,000 lost jobs” — referring to Maine’s death toll from the virus as of Sunday and the unprecedented number of unemployment filings in a month. Others featured slogans such as “reopen Maine” and “freedom not feardom.”
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Mills, a Democrat, has followed most other governors into issuing a stay-at-home order and restrictions on non-essential businesses. Those limitations have caused a national economic shock. The demonstration came amid increased talk about when and how Maine could resume businesses activities and followed right-wing protests in several other states.
The governor’s moves look popular in Maine, with 74 percent approving of the state’s coronavirus response in a Critical Insights poll released last week. Nearly three-quarters said they would rather deal with the economic impact of the virus than with the virus itself.
Kate Spardello of Kingfield was wearing a mask and a Trump hat at the rally. She said some of Mills’ restrictions on businesses should be scaled back to allow shopping at more places at least on a limited basis, though she indicated concern about the virus itself.
“I don’t feel comfortable in a crowd this big, but I felt it was incumbent on me to come out here and say we need to be somewhat free,” she said.
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Mills announced on Friday that her administration was planning for a phased reopening of the economy on the heels of Trump’s release of a plan to restart the economy in phases. The governor reiterated, however, that widespread testing — which Maine and the nation have yet to achieve — would be a necessary prerequisite. The timing is uncertain.
While Trump, a Republican, has expressed a desire to resume normal business activities soon, it will be up to the governors who instituted restrictions to slow the virus to control the pace of any reopening.
Underlying the demonstration was a large difference in case counts between urban and rural areas. Cumberland, York, Kennebec, Penobscot and Androscoggin counties accounted for 84 percent of Maine’s 875 confirmed cases as of Monday, while Piscataquis, Aroostook, Washington and Hancock counties had 11 cases combined and no deaths.
Nirav Shah, the director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, has cautioned that a lack of confirmed cases of the virus in a region does not guarantee that the disease is not circulating, but he also said on Friday that differences between regions would “inform” the way the state reopened.
Washington County Commissioner Chris Gardner, a Republican not affiliated with the protest, said it was important to prioritize public health but suggested some areas could open sooner while exercising precautions around long-term care facilities and individuals at high risk.
“If we have to wait for the hotspots of Cumberland and York [counties] to signal the all-clear before the rest of us can open again, that is going to put us at a severe disadvantage,” Gardner said on Friday.
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Capitol Police did not make any arrests on Monday, although the crowd size violated Mills’ order prohibiting gatherings of more than 10 people. The protest was organized by state Rep. Chris Johansen, R-Monticello. Peter Guidi of Old Orchard Beach was among the protesters to show up outside the Blaine House on Monday.
Guidi said he and his wife had invested their life savings in a hotel last year, and it would be an “absolute disaster” for their business if Maine did not loosen restrictions before the tourism season picks up.
Francis Walker of Bath, another protester, was frustrated because he had open-heart surgery in January and had seen a follow-up appointment canceled as hospitals pushed back nonessential procedures.
“If it’s not COVID-19, they don’t want to know about it,” Walker said.
BDN writer Michael Shepherd contributed to this report.
Watch: Protesters make noise in Augusta to fight back against COVID-19 restrictions