'A Work In Progress' — How Will Maine's Phased Reopening Work?

Apr 30, 2020

Maine Gov. Janet Mills Tuesday released her plan to restart the state economy. But there are still a lot of questions about how it might work and how it affects businesses. We've brought in Maine Public's chief political correspondent Steve Mistler to help explain what we know so far and, hopefully, clear up some confusion.

Ed note: interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Morin: Steve, the first phase of the governor's plan begins Friday. It would allow businesses like hair salons, barbershops, golf courses and auto dealerships to reopen if they're able to meet certain health and safety guidelines. Do we know what those guidelines are?

Mistler: No, but we should very soon. The Mills administration says they're developing a series of industry-specific checklists that will be posted to the Department of Economic and Community Development website Wednesday night or Thursday morning at the latest.

And Heather Johnson, the commissioner of DECD, said Wednesday that those checklists were partially developed by the affected industries, so that the state wasn't just imposing regulations that either couldn't be met or just aren't applicable. For example, a sample checklist for car dealerships includes things like sanitizing vehicles after a test drive or making sure there's distancing in the service waiting rooms. Those types of checklists are being developed for all of the affected industries.

And another important thing to highlight here is that these checklists will be rolled out as we get closer to different phases in the restart plan. For example, we're unlikely to see the safety checklists for restaurants until later in May, because those establishments wouldn't even be allowed to open until Phase 2, which is tentatively scheduled for June 1. The same goes for all businesses in Phase 3, which tentatively begins in July, or maybe even August. And of course, all of this depends on the status of the outbreak. If we have another surge of cases, the timing of this phased restart would definitely change.

I've been wondering about how these checklists are going to be monitored. Is the state going to be policing whether businesses are actually adhering to these safety guidelines?

No, not at least on the front end. Commissioner Johnson confirmed Wednesday that the state is basically leaving it to the businesses to police themselves. And if you think about it, I'm not sure there's any other way to do it, unless the state is going to hire a bunch of people to inspect individual businesses. Now, Johnson did say that the state will intervene if there are complaints. But in terms of upfront compliance, that's really going to be up to the businesses themselves. And I guess to their customers who, presumably, have an interest in keeping themselves safe.

Speaking of enforcement, I notice that the governor's plan pretty much retains the current requirement that out-of-state visitors self-quarantine for 14 days, at least through the first three phases of the plan. But how is that going to work in practice?

You've really touched on a tricky situation here. So the governor's plan says the out-of-state visitors can stay at hotels and campgrounds, which wouldn't open up until June at the earliest if they've met that 14 day quarantine, which is in effect now. But who's going to come to Maine, quarantine for 14 days somewhere, and then go to a hotel or a campground? I'm guessing not many people. It seems more likely that they're going to ignore that quarantine requirement or not come at all. That latter scenario is a big concern for businesses that are dependent on tourists, who on average, spend about three or four days here, according to state data. The former scenario, that they come anyway and ignore the quarantine, is a scary prospect for people who are already worried about tourists coming here and possibly spreading more of COVID-19.

Now, Governor Mills acknowledges that the requirement will be difficult to enforce. But I also get the sense her administration is exploring other ways to balance the health concerns against businesses who are dependent on tourists. Here's what Commissioner Johnson said about the quarantine requirement Wednesday: "Right now, a 14-day quarantine is kind of the only solution, ot the primary solution. We see line-of-sight to other potential solutions, but there's a lot of science that needs to that needs to happen between now and then."

So it sounds like the administration is looking at possible alternatives to the 14-day quarantine, which I understand was developed because that's believed to be the incubation period for the virus.

Yeah, that's right. If there's research that the incubation period is actually shorter, then maybe the administration would change the current requirement. But I think we're a pretty long ways off from that.

I've also been wondering about this badge that the state would give to businesses that follow their safety check lists. What can you tell us about that?

I'm glad you brought that up, Ed, because I've been seeing so much social media traffic suggesting that these badges, which are more like signs or posters, are basically some kind of big government tattoo or worse. But it's really not. I mean, the badges are voluntary for the businesses to use. And they're really meant as a tool for businesses to assure customers that they've satisfied these health checklists that we talked about earlier. And that might make a lot of sense for some donors attempting to restart during a pandemic. So much of the debate about reopening the economy has been about whether the government will even allow it. But it's also about whether customers will feel safe enough to participate and patronize businesses. And that's going to be a big challenge for businesses. And these badges might provide some reassurances for their customers.

 I know there are a lot of other questions swirling out there, but maybe that's to be expected.

Yeah, I think that's right. I mean, much of this plan is very much a work in progress. And that's because so much of this work has never been done before. And that was a message that Maine Center for Disease Control Director Dr. Nirav Shah said during Wednesday's press briefing: "These are questions that at no time, at least in modern history, has society ever really faced."

 That seems like something to keep in mind as all of this unfolds.

Originally published April 29, 2020 at 6:12 p.m. ET.