The planned pace of business reopenings announced by Gov. Janet Mills last week angered some business owners and Republicans, who called for an end to the Democratic governor’s emergency powers.
The governor’s four-phase plan to gradually reopen the economy as the state copes with the coronavirus pandemic stretches through at least late summer, threatening to keep many businesses closed and possibly collapse Maine’s short tourist season.
The concerns prompted legislative Republicans to send a letter to Democratic leaders asking for the Legislature to reconvene for a vote on ending the emergency declaration that was announced March 15 and renewed April 15 for 30 days.
The letter, from Senate Minority Leader Dana Dow of Waldoboro and Assistant Minority Leader Jeff Timberlake of Turner, and House Minority Leader Kathleen Dillingham of Oxford and Assistant Minority Leader Harold Stewart of Presque Isle, said their concerns and requests for information have been met with “disregard and contempt.”
“We have repeatedly asked for accommodation from the Governor to allow her Commissioners to directly answer questions from members of the Maine Legislature and have been refused,” the letter said.
The lawmakers said they have sought information from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and want “a set of guiding principles” used to determine which businesses can open.
“What we have been given is a phased-in plan that seemingly picks winners and losers,” the letter said. “It imposed an arbitrary set of rules for our businesses with no information on the scientific data used to create them.”
As a result, the Republican leaders said Mills’ emergency proclamation should be ended.
The Republicans’ letter was sent to Senate President Troy Jackson of Allagash and House Speaker Sara Gideon of Freeport, both Democrats.
In a statement, Jackson said removing Mills’ emergency powers would have “devastating consequences for the people of Maine (and) jeopardize our ability to use federal COVID-19 funding, put our front-line workers at risk, and make it more difficult for the state to get personal protective equipment, testing supplies and other vital resources.”
Jackson said reconvening the Legislature “for the sole purpose of stripping the governor of her emergency powers is a shortsighted attempt to score political points that would only further spread the virus, allow our economy to worsen and leave Maine people paying the price.”
Gideon released a statement saying Maine must “gradually reopen” its economy and “that we need to do so while following public health guidelines and maintaining health-care readiness. This will continue to be a quickly changing situation, and we must be ready to adapt to respond to the shifting needs of our economy and public health system.”
May 1 marked the beginning of the first phase of Mills’ plan, which allows some businesses to reopen in a limited way if they demonstrate they can protect public health; they include barbershops, hair salons, pet groomers, limited drive-in services, auto dealerships and others. The next stage, which would increase the size of public gatherings from no more than 10 to no more than 50, would tentatively begin June 1 and include restaurants. Additional business openings would occur in July and August, with some restrictions.
“People are angry and frustrated, some losing patience,” Mills said as she announced the plan. “But no matter what, we will listen to each other. We will work with each other. We will do everything in our power to keep each other safe. We will not give up on each other, never quit each other. And I will never quit you.”
Mills has also become a target for well-known Republicans. President Donald Trump tweeted what appeared to be support for Rick Savage, owner of Sunday River Brewing Co., who defied Mills’ order and opened his restaurant in Bethel for customers to dine in. Savage’s restaurant and liquor licenses were revoked, although he continued to operate and face daily fines.
Trump retweeted a message about the dispute, saying that he loved Maine and there are “many complaints coming in” about the situation in the state.
“Don’t make the cure worse than the problem itself,” the president tweeted. “That can happen, you know!”
Former Maine Gov. Paul LePage, who has said he will challenge Mills for the Blaine House in 2022, tweeted a message of thanks to Trump “for recognizing Maine’s situation.”
“Maine should look at other states to see what’s working,” LePage, who has been living in Florida, said. “Many states are opening that were hit harder than us.”
COVID-19 cases plateau
With the state in the first phase of Gov. Janet Mills’ plan to reopen Maine’s economy, the director of the state Center for Disease Control and Prevention said he believes the COVID-19 outbreak has reached a plateau.
Dr. Nirav Shah said there have been 1,226 cases of the coronavirus disease across the state, including 1,150 confirmed cases and 76 probable cases.
Shah said he believes Maine has begun to hit a plateau of around 20-30 new cases a day. While this is a “high plateau,” he said, it does mean measures taken in Maine have slowed the growth of the virus at least for now.
Sixty-one people have died from the virus in Maine, and 741 have recovered, according to the CDC; 187 have been hospitalized at some point, with 36 still in hospitalization, including 18 still in intensive care. Twelve people are on ventilators in Maine.
In addition to an outbreak at the Tyson Foods plant in Portland, Shah said there are two other focus areas the CDC is closely monitoring.
The first includes long-term or congregate-care facilities. As of Monday, nursing homes accounted for 32 deaths.
Shah said there have been 76 cases among residents and staff at the Augusta Rehabilitation Center; 14 cases at the Edgewood Rehabilitation Center in Farmington; 44 cases at Falmouth by the Sea; 55 cases at the Maine Veterans Home in Scarborough; 43 cases at the Tall Pines facility in Belfast, and 15 cases at Cedars in Portland.
Shah said the Federal Emergency Management Agency has said it is working to push out 14 days’ worth of personal protective equipment, such as surgical gloves and masks, to all the state’s long-term care facilities. This will be done in two stages, he said; once this month and again in June, although he did not have an exact timeline.
The other kind of outbreak the CDC is monitoring involves homeless shelters. As of Monday, the Hope House in Bangor had experienced 20 cases, and the Oxford Street Shelter in Portland had seven cases.
Shah said the Wellness Center in Lewiston has had one person confirmed with the virus. He said the CDC is investigating who this person may have come in contact with, but so far is not considering the situation an outbreak.
“We may soon be recommending universal testing (at the Wellness Center),” Shah said.
The Maine CDC on Tuesday reported there are 319 total ICU beds in the state; 157 of which are available; 318 total conventional ventilators, with 293 available, and a total of 395 alternative ventilators.
— Colin Ellis