Commentary

How similar are the recovery plans in Maine and New Hampshire?

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Last Friday, Maine Governor Janet Mills released a revision to her phased reopening plan, announcing that restaurants, retail stores and some outdoor recreation businesses in 12 of the state’s 16 counties will be permitted to open this month. 

Retail outlets in Aroostook, Washington, Hancock, Waldo, Kennebec, Franklin, Oxford, Somerset, Piscataquis, Knox, Lincoln and Sagadahoc counties are permitted to open Monday, May 11 with some added sanitation precautions. Restaurants in these counties may open with added health and customer distancing requirements next Monday, May 18, along with some wilderness camping and outdoor recreation activities. Outdoor fitness classes with fewer than 10 people will also be permitted. Before Gov. Mills revised her plan, New Hampshire was on schedule for a much speedier economic recovery.

After Gov. Mills announced her initial plan on April 28, her office was flooded with calls from hospitality businesses experiencing massive cancellations of summer bookings. After mounting pressure from the public in the form of petitions, protests and civil disobedience, the Governor has decided to relax some restrictions around business openings in the most rural counties of the state through the “Rural Reopening Plan” announced Friday.

The move aligns many of Maine’s reopening plans for these sectors with the timeline established by Governor Chris Sununu in New Hampshire, save for the four Maine counties where “community transmission” of COVID-19 has been detected, largely confined to the state’s somewhat more densely-populated York, Cumberland, Androscoggin, and Penobscot counties.

Both Governors have indicated their concern that opening their state’s beaches and resort towns too early could prompt an influx of travelers from Massachusetts and New York, two states with the current highest rates of infection in the region. As Governor Mills has noted previously, her administration will be considering the regional ramifications of reopening too soon, and of reopening in a staggered manner.

Although Mills’ revision to rules on rural counties aligns with some aspects of New Hampshire’s reopening plan, there are some that do not match with our only neighboring U.S. state. For instance, Maine has maintained a mandatory 14-day isolation for any person traveling to Maine from out-of-state for “non-essential business.” New Hampshire does not impose this rule, one that has drawn ire from many of Maine’s tourism-focused businesses. Gov. Mills has said her administration continues to look at the merits of keeping this rule in place and has not yet made an announcement rescinding it.

Mills’ revised plan for rural counties allows restaurants to open restricted dine-in service on May 18, similar to New Hampshire, but those restaurants over the border will be allowed to offer sidewalk or outdoor dining service. Today, those restaurants may only serve customers take-out or delivery.

As of May 11, both states allow barbers, hair salons, and cosmetologists to serve customers, as long as they follow CDC guidelines for facial coverings and sanitation. Maine allowed these sorts of “personal services” to open on May 1, although nail salons must wait until June 1. As of May 11, golf courses in both states may open to members or certain residents (in NH to state residents, in Maine to residents of their county). Both states currently prohibit gatherings of 10 people or more.

One of the largest divergences between the reopening plans of the two states exists in regard to campgrounds and “sporting camps.” Governor Mills’ order specified that campgrounds and other outdoor recreation like charter boat tours, rafting, etc. may not open until May 18, under which they must operate in accordance with state guidelines not yet issued.

These businesses are distinguished from “Guided Hunting, Fishing, Boating and Outdoor Activities” in state permissions, which may be open now. By contrast, New Hampshire has allowed campgrounds to remain open during the stay-at-home order, yet community pools and other communal outdoor spaces are closed until further notice.

Both states have applied restrictions on places of worship, an issue which recently drew a lawsuit from Bangor pastor, Ken Graves. Mills has said she would allow drive-in religious services in a limited capacity.

Govs. Mills and Sununu still hold the power to alter the administration of primary elections later this year. Maine’s was originally planned for June 9, but has been pushed back to July 14 with some eased rules for submission of absentee ballots. Mills may still choose to delay it further, but since New Hampshire’s is scheduled for early September, it is likely to occur on its original schedule.

The relaxed rules for Maine’s rural counties is a welcome change for many businesses and shoppers in Maine, but for others, it is too little, too late. Many that make up the state’s tourism and hospitality industry are already feeling a massive shock due to the severely limited summer season allowed under the Governor’s order. One can relate to their struggle given that industry supports one out of every six jobs and puts $2.5 billion into Mainers’ pockets every year.

Governor Mills is expected to extend Maine’s State of Emergency for another 30 days, since the current iteration is set to expire on May 15th. But, the question remains how much longer the Governor will grant herself emergency powers and forgo a reconvening of the legislature to deal with the myriad issues which the shutdown has exacerbated. These include sky-rocketing unemployment, a ballooning state budget deficit, and uncertainty from the tourism industry about how to proceed into what should be the most lucrative season of the year. 

A recent survey by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) showed 52 percent of U.S. small businesses, numbering more than 14 million, expect to close in the next 6 months due to the prolonged economic shutdown. Of those that experienced losses, over half have lost over 30% of their revenue over the last two months. Eighteen percent of American businesses under 100 employees have experienced losses exceeding the value of the firm, also known as a “total loss.”

Maine is home to almost 150,000 small businesses, supporting over a quarter-million jobs. More than 200,000 Mainers are employed by firms with less than 100 employees, a subset affected significantly by the government-mandated shutdown.

Much remains unclear as to how long Maine businesses and workers can sustain the shutdown and limited reopening. Due to the blunt force of government action, we are beginning to see the effects of widespread supply shocks throughout industries including food and other household staples.

Every policy has trade-offs. How much longer can we continue to trade economic vitality with potential loss of life due to the new virus? Only time will tell.

About Nick Murray

Nick Murray currently serves as Policy Analyst with Maine Policy Institute, writing, researching, and bringing Mainers together over the issues facing the state. Previously, he served as Outreach Coordinator, planning events to spread the word about Maine Policy's work to new audiences around the state.

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