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A group of Maine business owners on Friday sued Gov. Janet Mills over her unprecedented shutdown orders to limit the spread of the coronavirus claiming they are unconstitutional.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Bangor, is asking a federal judge to issue an injunction ordering the governor to allow businesses to reopen immediately and to lift the 14-day quarantine on people coming to Maine from out of state.
Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey, whose office must defend Mills, said the governor’s orders were carefully written to comply with the constitution.
“The executive orders and the restarting plan at issue in this lawsuit were carefully crafted and have been reviewed and updated in order to protect Mainers’ health during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Frey said. “We will represent the governor and will vigorously defend the constitutionality of the challenged executive orders and restarting plan and the governor’s authority to protect public health.”
The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
The plaintiffs include: a major construction company; a hair salon owner; vacation lodge, motel and inn owners; restaurant owners; a wedding disc jockey; an antique business owner; a real estate business owner; a Maine tour operator; a securities consultant; and an osteopathic orthopedic surgeon.
Of the 18 business owners, half live in Cumberland County, the county hardest hit by the coronavirus. As of Friday, 658 people had tested positive for the COVID-19 and 30 had died there, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. The other plaintiffs live in Hancock, Franklin, Waldo and Washington counties.
“The governor’s regulations are arbitrary and capricious, and they favor big businesses over Maine’s lifeblood: its small businesses,” said Augusta lawyer Stephen Smith, who represents the businesses. “We have filed in U.S. District Court this afternoon, challenging Gov. Mills’ excessive response to the virus.”
The business owners claim in the 28-page complaint that the constitutions of Maine and the U.S. confine the actions of government in favor of individual liberties. These protections “are not suspended in the face of pandemic or public emergency,” it said.
Under state law, the governor shall declare a state of emergency whenever “a disaster or civil emergency exists or is imminent.” The lawsuit concedes that an epidemic is listed as a type of disaster but argues that “the presence of an infectious disease does not alone qualify for this classification.”
The business owners argue that as of May 5 just .086 percent of Maine’s population had tested positive for COVID-19 and just one in 22,000 had died from it. The complaint says that those figures do not show that an epidemic exists throughout the state of Maine, so Mills could not take the actions she did.
Earlier this week, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to consider the appeal of a Pennsylvania decision that upheld Gov. Tom Wolf’s shutdown orders in the Keystone State. The case originated in state not federal court.
A similar suit was filed Tuesday by Calvary Chapel in Orrington in federal court in Bangor. It alleges that the governor’s gathering limits violate the freedom of religion and assembly clauses of the First Amendment and other laws designed to protect houses of worship.
A preliminary decision in that case is expected Saturday. It was unclear how a decision in the church lawsuit might impact a decision in the business owners complaint since they allege different sections of the U.S. Constitution have been violated.
Watch: State labor commissioner speaks to unemployed Mainers