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Business and Economy

Businesses Offer Mixed Responses To Plan To Gradually Reopen Maine

Robert F. Bukaty
Associated Press
A message is posted on the front window of the Ranging Bull Saloon which remains closed during the coronavirus pandemic, Tuesday, April 28, 2020, in Augusta, Maine.

Many business owners and municipal leaders have been eagerly waiting for Gov. Janet Mills to provide a path forward after weeks of restrictions in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Her announcement today that she’ll issue a new stay at home order that allows a gradual reopening of certain businesses is a relief for some, but not all.

It was six weeks ago that Mills issued an executive order closing all restaurants to dine-in service.

“It’s not going well,” says Julie Barker, co-owner of Helen’s Restaurant in Machias.

The restaurant has been offering take out and delivery, but Barker says business is still slow, and her bills — like mortgage and utilities — aren’t stopping.

“We are overdrawn in our accounts,” she says.

Barker says Helen’s even closed a couple weeks ahead of Mills’ order in March out of caution. But as the weeks have ticked by and the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Washington County has hovered at two, Barker has been anxious to hear a plan from the governor about reopening the economy.

Under the plan Mills announced Tuesday, restaurants likely won’t be able to open for dine-in service until June. But Barker says there should be different criteria for reopening based on geography and the number of COVID-19 cases.

“Our demographics are so different. And we have a hospital. We have the court system. We have the university. Machias is kind of its own little community. I mean people are — they’re out,” she says.

And the number of cases, Barker says, hasn’t climbed beyond two, both of whom are now listed as recovered.

Farther west, Auburn Mayor Jason Levesque is also anxious to reopen the economy. He sent a letter to Gov. Mills Tuesday asking that she lift the stay at home order no later than next Monday, May 4.

“When I’m talking to folks via phone, or email, or at a socially respectable distance, a lot of them are saying, ‘We just need to have some sort of hope and some short-term goals to be rolled out so we have something to really look forward to,’” he says.

Mills did not take up Levesque’s request, instead extending a stay at home order till the end of May and allowing businesses to gradually reopen over the next several months. Levesque supports a phased-in approach to reopening businesses, but he had hoped that at least some retail stores could open earlier than the June timeline that Mills’ plan calls for.

Levesque notes that the Hobby Lobby in Auburn was able to earn status as an essential business and open this week.

“If some of our retail box stores are taking - well, they all are taking, if they’re open, very good precautions, limiting the number of customers that are in there, proper shields and so forth, I think we should be able to apply that to our other retail stores as well,” he says.

But some municipal leaders are in favor of an extension to the stay at home order. Before Mills made her announcement, Fort Kent town manager Suzie Paradis said she wanted it to last through mid-May. Five people in Aroostook County have been confirmed with cases of COVID-19, and two have recovered.

“I’m sure the people that have tested positive have family members that live right in the Fort Kent area. They shop at the local grocery stores, they go to the gas stations. So I think for us, we’re a little more weary because the cases are right here in our community, it’s not just countywide,” she says.

There is one sector of the economy that’s allowed to reopen as of this Friday that likely has universal appeal: hair salons.

“We’re gonna get slammed,” says Christina Marsh, owner of Carpe Diem Salon in Dover-Foxcroft. “Everybody in this industry is going to get slammed because people are tired of looking at themselves, they’re tired of feeling like crap, they are going to want to do something for themselves.”

Marsh says it has been tough closing her business for several weeks. Spring is among her busiest times of year. When the sun comes out, she says, people want to look and feel good. And this spring, more than ever, she says, people need a morale boost.

The organization that represents restaurants and hotels statewide, Hospitality Maine, declined comment for this story.

Originally published April 28, 2020 at 5:53 p.m. ET.