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We’re eager for Maine to ease restrictions put in place to control the spread of coronavirus and to allow more of the state’s businesses to resume normal operations as quickly, and safely, as possible.
However, we understand that this is a difficult task that requires business owners, state and local officials and others to weigh complex, and sometimes conflicting, data and demands.
Keeping restrictions, such as prohibitions on dining-in service and lodgings, in place too long will have an even more devastating effect on many businesses and their employees. Easing these restrictions too quickly could allow a resurgence of the virus that has killed more than 60,000 Americans.
Treading the middle ground, as Gov. Janet Mills has attempted to do with a phased re-opening of Maine is a reasonable approach. As she noted this week, the timeline can be sped up or slowed down based on new information and developments. Her administration needs to be much clearer about how determinations about what businesses can open and which cannot are and will be made. A task force on reopening could help formalize that process while also giving businesses, employees, public health experts, legislators and others a place where their concerns and proposals could be heard and evaluated in a more public way.
We strongly concur that decisions regarding what activities can be safely allowed, and when and where, must be made with public health at the forefront. But there is clearly room for a better consideration of business and community concerns.
While a vocal group is protesting Mills’ actions, their sentiments are not broadly held. In addition, one thing that appears to be missing from these discussions about how and when Maine can be more open for business is consumer demand.
This is an important consideration because even if governors in Maine and elsewhere eased restrictions more quickly, the majority of people are still worried about the spread of coronavirus and aren’t likely to soon return to eating in restaurants, staying in hotels and flying. These sentiments, as much as government directives, should inform business decisions.
Surveys have found that most Americans, including Mainers, are wary of returning to “business as usual” too quickly.
A survey conducted in late April by the COVID-19 Consortium, a group of researchers from Northeastern, Harvard and Rutgers University, found that Americans and Maine residents are more concerned about coronavirus than they are about their jobs or other financial hardships. This gap between these concerns was largest in Maine, the consortium found.
In Maine, 72 percent of respondents said they are concerned about contracting the coronavirus; 82 percent concerned about a family member getting it. Meanwhile, 33 percent are concerned about losing their job and 60 percent are concerned about financial hardships, even as 19 percent of respondents said they or someone in their household had been laid off as a result of the coronavirus outbreak.
Overall, 80 percent of Mainers surveyed said the state government is reacting properly, one of the highest positive ratings in the survey. Only 12 percent said the state’s actions were too restrictive. The survey was done before Mills announced her plan for a phased reopening of businesses.
Mainers also had high approval rates for measures, such as restricting restaurants to take-out only, restricting travel and canceling events, that aimed to slow the spread of coronavirus. Most thought these measure should remain in place.
Ninety-four percent approved — 78 percent strongly approved — of the government asking people to stay home over the next 30 days, while 88 percent said they supported requiring most businesses to stay closed and 91 percent supported restricting travel within the U.S.
Only 6 percent of those surveyed in Maine said the country’s economy should be reopened and business activity resumed immediately. Seventy-four percent thought it should not be opened for at least four weeks, with 26 percent saying the country should wait at least eight weeks.
More specific to Maine and its lucrative tourism industry, only a third of Americans say they’ll stay in a hotel this summer and about a quarter said they’d fly in the next three months, according to an April Harris Poll. Only 15 percent would stay in a hotel within a month of government officials saying the coronavirus curve is flattening and only 14 percent said they’d fly within a month of the government concluding that coronavirus was on the decline.
For these reasons, there are likely to be far fewer visitors to and within Maine in coming months.
Of course, the state government should do all that is reasonable to help Maine businesses make it through the coronavirus pandemic and its consequences. The Mills administration has work to do to improve transparency and reduce confusion in the reopening process, as seen with conflicting guidance for dentists this week. But there also needs to be an understanding that customer expectations and behavior has changed.
Adapting to this new reality must be part of the planning by both business owners and the state government.
Watch: Janet Mills outlines her plan to reopen