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WATCH: Gov. Mills Issues 'Stay Healthy At Home' Mandate

Nick Woodward
Maine Public

Citing the historic public health threat of the coronavirus, Gov. Janet Mills on Tuesday issued a stay-at-home order for all Maine residents and visitors.

The governor’s executive order joins Maine with the 32 other states and the District of Columbia, which have imposed strict restrictions on business operations labeled essential, as well as in-state travel. Prior to Tuesday, Maine and Pennsylvania were the only northeastern states that did not have stay-at-home orders, although municipalities like Portland and Bangor have implemented local ordinances.

The statewide restrictions in Maine go into effect at midnight Thursday and will run through April 30, and will preempt local ordinances unless municipalities enact stricter standards.

“We are in the midst of one of the greatest public health crises this world has seen in more than a century,” Mills said during a press conference in Augusta. “This virus will continue to sicken people across our state; our cases will only grow, and more people will die. I say this to be direct, to be as honest with you as I can. Because saving lives will depend on us.”

Mills’ order restricts the number of people allowed in essential businesses at any one time and depending on the square footage of the business. It also includes the mandatory closing of in-class instruction at schools until May 1. Mills has previously recommended that all districts end in-school instruction, but the order that goes into effect Thursday requires the temporary closure.

The move is consistent with the governor’s response to a pandemic that has accelerated in Maine from the state’s first presumptive positive COVID-19 case 19 days ago to 303 confirmed cases and five deaths as of Tuesday. Many of her actions began as recommendations, but have become mandates as the outbreak worsens. That includes restaurant and bar closures, nonessential business operations and limits on gatherings of people.

Mills also indicated that Tuesday’s executive order was partially motivated by concerns that people from out-of-state were flocking to Maine to flee the virus. Last week the governor asked the Maine Turnpike Authority to post electronic messages telling visitors that they should self-quarantine for 14 days upon arriving here, particularly if they arrived from states designated as COVID-19 hotspots, such as New York. The governor’s new order, compelling residents to stay home unless for they’re venturing for essential items such as food and medicine, will also apply to visitors.

Mills also hinted that more action aimed at curbing out-of-state visitors is forthcoming.

“We will be issuing a further order in this regard with more details in the next day or so,” she said. “For those people who come to Maine, though, my message is clear: you should not think you can escape the virus by coming here. And while you are here you are obviously subject to the laws, orders, and protocols of the state of Maine. Our health facilities may soon be crowded and overwhelmed. If you get sick, or are sick, treatment may be scarce or even unavailable to you.”

Mills said that she can’t close the state border, but insists that those entering the state or returning to Maine from somewhere else self-quarantine for 14 days.

The order means that beginning at 12:01 a.m. Thursday, Maine residents will be prohibited from traveling outside of their homes except for essential personal activities that include, grocery shopping, medical care, buying medications, providing care to another person, traveling to and from a child care facility or commuting to work for an essential job. The order also allows people to engage in outdoor exercise or walking a pet, provided that social distancing is maintained by a distance of at least six feet.

“Essential businesses” is a relatively broad designation that includes grocery stores, hardware stores, pharmacies and convenience stores. Nonessential businesses, such as hair salons and movie theaters, were ordered closed by the governor last week.

Under the new order, essential businesses must limit the number of customers in their buildings, or implement curbside pickup and delivery options as much as possible. The number of customers is on a sliding scale. Businesses that are less than 7,500 square feet can only have five customers at a time; those between 7,500 and 25,000 square feet can have 15 customers; those between 25,000 and 50,000 square feet can have 50 customers; those between 50,000 and 75,000 square feet can have 75 customers at a time; and larger big box businesses can have up to 100 customers at a time.

“These are no ordinary times,” Mills said, “but these are times when extraordinary actions are required, so today I am taking the most aggressive action yet.”

Mills added that Maine will experience more infections and deaths from the coronavirus, but the state must take further precautions to save as many lives as possible.

Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.