Nancy Leeman assembles Mother's Day bouquets for customers at Blais Flower & Garden Center during the coronavirus pandemic, Friday, May 8, 2020, in Lewiston, Maine. Credit: Andree Kehn | Sun Journal via AP

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Retailers in 12 Maine counties were allowed to reopen on Monday as the state continues its slow economic reopening, though things were not yet normal after a nearly seven-week shutdown as businesses navigated health rules and slower-than-usual foot traffic.

Retailers in counties where community transmission is not present would be allowed to open on Monday, while restaurants in those areas will be allowed to open for limited dine-in service on May 18, Gov. Janet Mills announced Friday. Some small businesses opened on Monday, though many large chain stores in Maine remained closed.

[Our COVID-19 tracker contains the most recent information on Maine cases by county]

On Monday, it took a reporter a while to find newly open businesses. Those that were said business was yet to return to pre-pandemic levels and that few neighbors were open, signaling that the effects of the coronavirus-related economic reopening could be slow.

For Angela Hallee and Erica Johnson, the owners of Retail Therapy Consignment Boutique in Waterville, the news meant speeding up projects they had expected to have until June to complete.

“When we found out Friday that we could reopen, we really had to speed up the process this weekend,” Hallee said. “But we didn’t want to miss the opportunity to open as soon as we could.”

Developing guidelines for retail stores was easier than in other sectors because businesses deemed essential such as grocery stores had already adopted health measures serving as guides for the industry, said Curtis Picard, president of the Retail Association of Maine.

Lisa-Marie Stewart, the owner of Lisa-Marie’s Made in Maine, with shops in Portland and Bath sellings goods crafted by Maine artisans, said she had been preparing to reopen for weeks, acquiring face coverings, cleaning supplies, glass shields and other necessities.

Only the Bath location reopened on Monday with retailers in Cumberland, York, Androscoggin and Penobscot counties barred from opening until June 1 under Mills’ plan. Stewart said while loyal customers who had seen the shop’s Facebook post were eager to stop in, many weren’t aware that the business was open again.

“I have a feeling we’ll most likely see the effect after today when the word gets around more,” she said.

Many regular customers paid a visit to Retail Therapy in Waterville, Johnson said. But the shop did not get some of the foot traffic it typically got from people on the street or visiting nearby businesses. Customers complied well with health regulations, she and Hallee found.

“It is different because we really have to pay attention to how many people are in the store as well as wiping things down,” Hallee said. “But I think customers have been really good about keeping distance from each other and respectful about where they’re walking in the store.”

Retailers must follow guidelines on sanitation and capacity limits, while patrons are supposed to wear cloth face coverings in order to limit the spread of the virus. Such coverings have become a source of conflict in some parts of the country. In Michigan, a security guard at a Family Dollar was shot and killed last week after asking a customer to put on a mask.

In Maine, face coverings have been a requirement in places where social distancing is difficult since May 1, though young children and people with medical conditions where a mask would make it hard to breathe are exempted from the rule. Individuals who cannot wear masks for medical reasons are not required to carry documentation of their condition, however.

Mills has advised that anyone concerned with whether social distancing protocols are being followed can contact local law enforcement, though Picard of the retail association said shop owners are unlikely to call police on customers.

“Without question, there are people with a medical condition so they are not able to wear a mask, and there are some people out there who are just choosing not to do so,” he said. “For better or worse, that’s how it’s going to be.”

But he thought that most people would comply, noting they now had more than a week to adjust to the rule.

Stewart said customers had been good about wearing masks on the first day. She ordered disposable masks for customers who might not bring their own but is not expecting to receive them until the end of the month due to supply chain backlogs.

“We haven’t had an issue with refusing anyone. We’re not at that point right now,” she said. “I think people are slowly trickling. I think they’re taking baby steps to get out there and we may be the first ones that they’re testing right now.”

Watch: Janet Mills outlines her plan to reopen

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