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There are two generalized ways to look at Gov. Janet Mills’ Tuesday announcement outlining her plan for a phased re-opening of Maine businesses and recreational spots.
At one end of the spectrum, this can be considered good news that acknowledges the efforts Maine people, businesses, health care providers and others have taken to minimize the spread of coronavirus. Early pr ojections were that Maine hospitals could be overrun with people who were drastically ill from the virus. That has not happened, not because the predictions were necessarily wrong, but because efforts — such as stay-at-home orders and businesses revamping their operations to minimize in-person contact — have flattened the curve, that is, helped slow the number of active coronavirus cases in Maine. Because of this, the restrictions that flattened the curve can begin to be eased.
The other perspective is that because there aren’t a lot of confirmed cases in Maine, Mills’ plan is too slow and too damaging to the state’s economy. This perspective is not without merit. But, as Dr. Nirav Shah, the director of the Maine Center for Disease Control, has warned repeatedly, Maine has tested a tiny fraction (about 1 percent) of its population, so the 1,056 confirmed cases in the state are likely a small percentage of the actual number of COVID-19 cases here. Shah has also repeatedly cautioned that just because a county has a small number of confirmed cases, residents shouldn’t think that the illness is not more widespread there.
It is much easier to second-guess decisions than to make them — believe us, we do it all the time.
With this acknowledgement, the Mills administration’s phased re-opening plan is reasonable and responsible, as it seeks to balance public health concerns with the need to allow the state’s economy to more fully function. This is especially true because the timeline can be accelerated or slowed down based on new information, which is crucial as researchers and experts learn something new about coronavirus and its spread almost daily.
The plan is far from perfect, of course. The idea of having businesses put badges, essentially seals of approval, on their doors and websites after fulfilling a state checklist seems a bit unwieldy and bureaucratic. We still believe that having a more formal task force, which includes state officials as well as health care, business and worker representatives, would bring more coherence and transparency to this work.
But, having a plan, built on a foundation of protecting public health, to allow businesses to safely resume fuller operations is an important step forward. It is especially important to the more than 100,000 Mainers who are out of work. In this economic downturn, Maine is the most vulnerable state because of its older population and high percentage of self-employed workers, according to a recent study by Oxford Economics.
“Our first concern, as always, is protecting the health of Maine people, and we support the Governor’s gradual approach to reopening the economy and her Administration’s commitment to working closely and collaboratively across economic sectors to determine how to do so safely,” Dana Connors, president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, said in a statement shared by the governor’s office. “Maine businesses are eager to do their part to stem the tide on this virus, and we look forward to our continued partnership to that end.”
The plan outlined by Mills on Tuesday includes four stages of business reopening. The first begins Friday and would allow hair salons, barber shops and pet groomers to reopen and car dealers will be able to resume in-person operations. Golf and disc-golf courses can open with some restrictions.
Successive phases would allow more businesses — including restaurants (for dine-in service) and fitness centers on June 1 and hotels and campgrounds on July 1 — to resume operations, with restrictions to maintain physical distancing and a 14-day quarantine for people who come to Maine from other states. Phase four is to lift all restrictions that are currently in place related to coronavirus. There is no timeframe for this phase.
The continued restrictions, particularly on lodging, will be especially harmful to Maine’s valued tourism industry during what is typically the busiest season. A continued and frequent reassessment of these restrictions is essential to preserve as much of this industry as possible. Petitions from businesses and industries, showing how they can safely accommodate customers and workers, should also be reviewed expeditiously, with a prejudice toward easing restrictions without endangering public health.
It is also worth remembering that hundreds of Maine businesses changed their operations and even their products because of restrictions put in place in March. Restaurants and breweries switched to take-out only. Bakeries, bookstores, craft stores and others shifted to curbside pickup and online sales. Small grocery stores offered pick up service. A variety of companies began making, selling and donating protective equipment for healthcare personnel and Mainers.
This innovation may guide other businesses as they revamp their operations so they can reopen or more fully open.
In addition, Congress has spent trillions of dollars to help businesses and unemployed workers survive the drastic economic downturn that accompany the coronavirus. These programs remain flawed but have poured needed money into communities across the state.
Still, the restrictions put in place to avoid the worst predicted coronavirus outcome have come at a significant cost to Maine businesses and citizens. We, like many others, would like to see them eased as quickly as possible. But, we are also wary of what havoc the virus may yet bring. Dr. Anthony Fauci, one of President Donald Trump coronavirus experts, has long warned that a second wave of the virus is likely, potentially in the fall. That’s why far more testing and contact tracing remain a priority.
Maine businesses and people, along with the Mills administration must remain vigilant and prepared for what comes next, whether it is more good news or a second wave of the virus. As painful as this coronavirus shutdown has been, speedily opening things back up only to have to shut down again could bring a new level of complication and pain. Proceeding with caution makes sense.
Watch: Janet Mills outlines her plan to reopen