Mills Shifts From Recommending To Mandating Steps To Stem Spread Of Coronavirus

Mar 25, 2020

Gov. Janet Mills Mills has signed an executive order that adds new restrictions on non-essential businesses. Her order closes public-facing locations and businesses that cannot offer employees enough space to work safely with one another. The new steps come as Maine's total number of cases reached 118. Maine Public's Chief Political Correspondent Steve Mistler broke down the specifics with our All Things Considered host Nora Flaherty.

Mistler: So if you recall last week, Gov. Mills ordered the two-week closure of restaurants and bars. And she also recommended that so-called public facing businesses also close. That was a recommendation. And that would affect movie theaters, hair salons, fitness centers, and basically any type of business where members of the public are gathering indoors or interacting with employees. Well, this order turns last week's recommendations into mandated closures for those same types of businesses beginning at 12:01 - midnight - Wednesday, and extending through April 8th. The order also extends the mandated closure of dine-in services by restaurants and bars until April 8th, while also prohibiting gatherings of 10 or more people.

Flaherty: So how are essential businesses treated in this executive order? And how are essential businesses defined?

So the definition of essential businesses is relatively broad. It includes things like food processing, agriculture, industrial manufacturing, construction. And the governor made it pretty clear that road construction season would go on unless something drastic changes. And it also includes the type of businesses that we would need in our everyday lives to get through a situation like this.That includes grocery stores, hardware stores, pharmacies, credit unions, hotels, gas stations - all of those will remain open. But the governor is recommending that those same businesses immediately implement social distancing strategies, not just between customers and workers, but also among workers themselves. And I know that some stores are erecting protective Plexiglas around cash registers, for example - they're already doing that. The governor is asking for more of it. As for worker protections, the governor's also asking the open businesses to allow for people to work from home as much as possible. And she's also asking that customers waiting in line at, say, grocery stores, put six feet of distance between themselves and their fellow customers.

It seems like this order is a very measured step by Gov. Mills. How does it compare with steps other states have taken as they try to limit transmission of COVID-19?

I think measured is the correct way to describe it - although I've certainly heard from people who wish that Gov. Mills would would go a bit further by instituting what are known as stay-at-home orders. We've seen a lot of those in the last few days. I think there's at least 10 states that have implemented those. But so far, the Mills administration isn't quite ready to take that step. Today [Tuesday], she said that many of the other states implementing stay-at-home orders, such as Illinois and New York - they're just far more densely populated than Maine. And therefore, the community transmission of COVID-19 is far more acute in those places than it is here - at least, that's their opinion. That said, we're seeing communities in Maine taking that stay-at-home order step on their own. On Monday, Brunswick and Bangor instituted their own stay-at-home orders. The city of Portland announced its own five-day stay-at-home order would be going into effect. This is pretty similar to how individual school districts across Maine opted to halt in-class instruction a few weeks ago. Many of them were actually ahead of the governor on this, and the governor actually never mandated school closures, it just remains a recommendation.

What does the governor have to say about communities instituting more stringent rules than the state?

She didn't have a lot to say about it, but, basically, that if those localities think it's in their best interest, then they should go ahead and do it. Then she did note that Portland is the state's largest city, so a five-day shut down might make sense for them, but it may not for other parts of the state.

And we also heard from [Maine] CDC Director Nirav Shah today - he gave an update on the backlog of testing.

Yeah, that's right. So we've been waiting - we've been hearing from listeners and all kinds of people that they've taken the COVID-19 test, but they've been waiting for days if not weeks for their results. And the fear here is that this backlog is giving us a very incomplete picture of the outbreak in Maine. Dr. Shah was finally able to quantify that backlog of tests, and it stands at roughly 1,300 tests that, you know, where they just haven't been able to process it. Now, it's important to consider that in order to get a test, your physician has to recommend it. So there's a very good chance that a lot of those people are positive. We don't know how many or who they are or where they are. And that could really hamper the state's efforts to plan and respond to the outbreak.

What did Shah say about that backlog?

Well, he said it was unacceptable. And one of the reasons for the backlog is that there's this national shortage of a particular reagent that's used to complete the tests. Maine is experiencing that shortage too. And Shah says that the state is looking to buy new equipment that uses a different type of reagent to help chip away at the backlog. But when we asked for some specifics, he didn't want to give any. And here's why: He didn't want to announce what type of reagent would be used in that new type of equipment because there's a fear that other states will consider taking the same step and make a run on the same reagent.

Chief Political correspondent Steve Mistler, recapping the state's response to increasing numbers of COVID-19 cases in the state.


This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.