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One of the biggest challenges for government officials during the coronavirus pandemic has been how best to balance the science-guided need for safety measures to minimize the spread of the illness against the economic consequences of restricting business activity.
Requiring some businesses to close and restricting activities has been a prudent response to a virus that is spread through the air when people are in close contact. But, prolonged closures and restrictions depress economic activity and cause other traumas as Americans are cut off from one another and the activities — including work, schools and entertainment — that are crucial parts of our lives.
Too often, however, these two paths have been presented as opposing choices.
They don’t have to be. As Maine has shown, it is possible to gradually and thoughtfully lift limits on businesses and gatherings while also keeping coronavirus in check. The key is to base decisions on scientific information and advice from health experts and to weigh that information against the desire to allow as much economic activity as possible.
“The people in this state believe in science,” Dr. Nirav Shah, the director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, told Scientific American in a recent interview. “We know from cell-phone-tracking data that when we asked them to stay home, they did. When we asked them to wear masks, they did. Not everyone, of course, but most. They took heed of public health folks, took our advice to heart.”
As a result, Maine is leading the way. It is one of only two states — the other is Vermont — that is in the trending better category in analysis done by the COVID Tracking Project, a group of public health and crisis experts.
In Maine, both the number of new cases of the past 14 days and the positivity rate are decreasing. The state also has one of the lowest rates of new COVID infections per day per 1 million people.
The state has seen some troubling outbreaks, including at a church in Brooks. At least 180 cases and eight deaths were tied to an indoor wedding and reception in the Millinocket area. The August wedding events were responsible for outbreaks in the York County Jail and a nursing home in Madison, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control. Personnel at the jail did not adhere to state mask wearing mandates and the nursing home did not follow protocols for employees who were ill.
At the same time, the state’s economy has recovered more quickly than many other states. Certainly, many businesses certainly suffered — and some continue to be harmed — by coronavirus-related shutdowns.
A recent analysis by CNN found that the state’s rural character and low COVID infection rates, which are intertwined, contributed to its economic resilience. The analysis also credited the state’s gradual approach to reopening with avoiding regurgences of the illness, which also harm the economy. That approach helped Maine avoid the summer resurgence of the virus seen in Arizona, Florida and Texas, where thousands of new cases were reported daily at summer’s height.
Without a national plan to deal with the pandemic, the virus has spread across much of the country, with more than 220,000 deaths attributed to the illness. Uncertainty about their health and finances led many Americans to forgo traveling, eating out and putting money into the economy. If the virus had been contained earlier, as it was in many other countries, the economic harm could have been lessened.
Yet, President Donald Trump frequently criticizes states for being too restrictive. He called Maine Gov. Janet Mills “a dictator” during a June visit to Bangor.
He’s also mocked scientists and public health officials — and those who listen to them — for their warnings about coronavirus. Despite having been hospitalized with coronavirus earlier this month, Trump often does not wear a mask and holds rallies where attendees do not distance from one another and many do not wear masks..
The Pine Tree State’s experience shows that listening to the experts and following the science is the best way to protect the physical and economic health of Maine and its people. It is past time that the Trump administration absorbed this lesson and stopped misleading Americans by denigrating scientists and suggesting that the coronavirus pandemic will soon end.