The BDN is making the most crucial coverage of the coronavirus pandemic and its economic impact in Maine free for all readers. Click here for all coronavirus stories. You can join others committed to safeguarding this vital public service by purchasing a subscription or donating directly to the newsroom.
AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine began to reopen businesses faster than most other states amid the coronavirus outbreak, but public pressure on Gov. Janet Mills has focused on sectors most sensitive to the summer tourist season as changing plans begin to roll out across the country.
The national economic slowdown aimed at slowing the spread of the virus has come through emergency orders from governors that are often hard to compare. Maine is one of 24 states that has begun to ease restrictions, according to an analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation.
On Friday, Maine entered the first phase of a four-phase reopening plan announced by the Democratic governor, allowing certain businesses to reopen while limiting restaurants and hotels into the summer. A Bethel business owner reopened to dine-in customers that day in a well-publicized act of disobedience and Mills faced two conservative protests in two weeks.
Many of the restrictions imposed in Maine have been similar to those of its neighbors and other states with common characteristics. At the same time, the count of confirmed cases here remains the lowest in New England on a per-capita basis and the ways in which Maine has been most cautious — with lodging as the best example — have been top sources of contention.
Maine has perhaps been most aggressive in limiting lodging, applying a 14-day quarantine that has been criticized as onerous. Only a half-dozen states, including Maine, have limited lodging so far. An executive order from Mills in early April barred lodging establishments, including hotels and Airbnbs, from hosting visitors, except in cases where they were housing vulnerable populations or health care workers.
The governor’s reopening plan indicated that some lodging establishments could reopen in June, while others might wait until July. That is stricter coupled with a 14-day quarantine period for visitors to the state have been a cause for concern for Maine’s hospitality industry, as summer tourism, which would usually begin to pick up in May, is central to the state’s economy.
More than a dozen states have instituted a mandatory quarantine for travelers, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, though several have said that they expect to lift the orders soon. The prospect of Maine’s quarantine lasting into the summer has been a main source of concern.
HospitalityMaine, an advocacy group for hotels and restaurants, has interpreted the governor’s plan as allowing bookings for Maine residents beginning in June and out-of-state travelers in July. It also hinted in a Friday message to members that Maine may be rethinking the lengths of different phases for hotels and restaurants as well as the quarantine requirement.
Several of Maine’s New England neighbors, including Vermont and New Hampshire, are among the small number of states that have imposed similar restrictions on hotels, and neither has given a clear timeline for when such establishments might be allowed to reopen.
Maine began allowing businesses to reopen relatively early, but other states are doing so more comprehensively. Maine was in an initial group of roughly 20 states that began lifting restrictions on nonessential businesses first. Those states have done that to varying degrees while others have left restrictions in place.
The two least restrictive states — North Dakota and Missouri — have allowed nonessential businesses to open with reduced capacity, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Maine is among another 20 that have allowed some to reopen. On Friday, Mills allowed business including barber shops, hair salons, auto dealerships and golf courses to reopen.
Maine beat neighboring New Hampshire to the punch on those types of businesses. As of May 11, personal service businesses and golf courses can reopen in the Granite State. New Hampshire, however, will also allow all retail stores to open then under capacity limits. Maine is requiring nonessential retailers to remain closed until at least June 1, though a range of businesses have successfully petitioned to be considered essential and thus are already open.
Maine is not among more than a dozen states that have opened up restaurants to dine-in services, though significant restrictions are in place in those states. Fourteen states now allow customers to eat at restaurants, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, though they still face limits on capacity and other regulations aimed at protecting public health. Maine is not among them and has limited them to takeout and delivery business since mid-March.
In Alaska, for example, restaurants are allowed to open so long as they remain at less than 25 percent of indoor capacity, while outdoor tables have to be at least 10 feet apart from one another. In New Hampshire, restaurants will be permitted to offer only outdoor seating beginning on May 18, as long as parties are seated six feet from one another, the Associated Press reported. A timeline for when indoor seating might be available remains unclear.
Mills has proposed that restaurants in Maine would be able to reopen indoor seating with capacity limits in the second phase of her reopening plan, tentatively set for June, while bars might have to wait until July.
Religious services have been a point of contention in Maine, but most states have similar restrictions. Mills’ ban on gatherings with more than 10 people included religious functions, though drive-in services are permitted under the first reopening phase. Maine is among 32 states either banning in-person services or limiting them to 10 people or fewer, the Pew Research Center found.
A pastor in Orrington said he plans to hold in-person services next weekend and that his evangelical congregation will be a plaintiff in a federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Mills’ order. The Trump administration has indicated it will side with religious leaders who argue the rules overly limit their religious freedom.
However, the matter made it to federal court in Kentucky last week, where a panel of judges declined to block restrictions on in-person church services while saying that drive-in services must be permitted, the Courier-Journal reported.