As the number of cases of COVID-19 increases in Maine, state officials are increasingly being asked if they need to mandate closures of certain businesses like restaurants and bars as a way to limit spread of the virus.
Several other states have but, so far, Gov. Janet Mills has been reluctant to take that step.
When Gov. Mills declared a civil emergency on Sunday, she included a long list of recommendations for Mainers. Among them was to avoid gatherings of 50 or more people, a step recommended by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as part of an enhanced social distancing strategy.
At the Sunday press conference, Mills was asked several times why she did not require the closure of popular social gathering places — restaurants and bars.
“We’re not ready to shut down the whole restaurant business in Maine, or the bars,” she said. “I think they’ve gotten the same recommendations that we’ve been giving out to the general population about congregating in groups, distancing people from each other.”
Gov. Mills also added that Mainers were largely following her administration’s recommendations and that state-issued mandates may not be necessary.
Other states and some municipalities have taken a different tack.
Roughly 15 states have ordered mandatory closures of restaurants and bars, including Illinois, where Gov. J.B. Pritzker originally hoped state recommendations against indoor gatherings would be heeded.
“I am ordering all bars and restaurants in the state of Illinois to close to the public as of the close of business Monday night March 16 through March 30th,” he announced.
Pritzker’s decree came after the state’s advice went unheeded by St. Patrick’s Day revelers in the city of Chicago, even as the state witnessed a large spike in COVID-19 cases.
Soon, several other states followed suit, as well as large cities like Austin and Washington, D.C.
In Maine, some municipalities have taken similar action, including Portland, which declared a state of emergency and instituted a curfew to curb St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in the city’s watering holes.
And on Monday night, Gov. Mills recommended a statewide cancellation of St. Patrick’s Day activities.
But those moves by Mills continue to raise the same question: Are recommendations enough to keep people from indoor gatherings?
“For me, the take-home point is we need to be like St. Louis,” Maine CDC director Nirav Shah said at a press briefing held Monday in Augusta.
Shah was not talking about modern-day St. Louis, but St. Louis during the 1918 outbreak of influenza.
The city’s response to that outbreak has been discussed widely in recent days as health officials hammer home the importance of social distancing.
Back then, the St. Louis’ health commissioner quickly ordered the closure of city saloons, schools, sporting events and churches, moves that today are heralded for curbing the outbreak and saving lives.
It was a stark contrast to Philadelphia, which took the opposite approach.
On Tuesday, Dr. Shah was asked whether Maine is truly modeling St. Louis by only making recommendations.
“I don’t know that the essence of the 1918 experience — I don’t know that the crux of it was on the mandate. I think the crux of it was on the compliance. And what we’ve seen in Maine, and certainly what I have experienced since moving to Maine, is that Maine people want to take care of their communities,” he said.
In other words, Shah says, if Mainers are complying with recommendations, mandates may not be necessary.
Nevertheless, some municipalities continue to craft more stringent rules.
And the business group Portland Buy Local has helped circulate a petition drafted area business owners calling for the statewide closure of all restaurants and bars, as well as state aid to get them through such a mandate. It’s been signed by more than 50 businesses.