Coronavirus

New England governors are lifting pandemic mandates, but not Governor Mills

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On Tuesday, Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont announced that he will lift all business restrictions, except for mandating masks indoors (including schools), by May 19. On a sooner timeline, Lamont said that the state’s outdoor restrictions will lift on May 1.

The pressure is building on the remaining governors in New England, including Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker and Maine Governor Janet Mills, to do the same.

Medical experts based in the region have recently spoken out about the lack of necessity for mask mandates. Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health, explained on CNN that “we’ve known for a year that outdoor infections are very rare,” and that he expects many more states will begin to lift their mask mandates.

“We’ve learned so much since the terrifying days early in the pandemic,” wrote Dr. Paul Sax, clinical Director of the Infectious Disease Clinic at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, in a piece for the New England Journal of Medicine. “Why not share what we’ve learned and eliminate mandates that no longer make sense?”

Last Friday, April 16, New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu announced that the state’s face-covering mandate would expire at midnight. He also outlined a timeline to lift all of the pandemic-related restrictions placed on businesses by May 7, replacing those hard-and-fast rules with a guidance document. He had previously announced that all schools in New Hampshire would be required to fully open by April 19.

Meanwhile, Maine Governor Mills last announced changes for Mainers on March 5, outlining progressively looser restrictions on business capacity and outdoor events in a timeline through late May. Moving Maine away (though not completely) from the one-car garage standard of social distancing, Mills’ current dictates allow for 50% indoor capacity and 75% outdoor capacity. On May 26, indoor capacity will rise to 75% and outdoor capacity to 100%.

Unfortunately, even the rules for “100% capacity” are not 100% normal. Businesses and event planners must adhere to the many overarching requirements still in effect under Mills’ orders.

For instance, the universal mask mandate, which the governor ordered more than five months ago, is still in effect. It requires Mainers to cover their nose and mouth no matter the distance to another person. The only provision for accommodating the disabled further burdens businesses. Disinfecting surfaces, which Vincent Hill, Chief of the US CDC Waterborne Disease Prevention Branch, recently said, is “typically not necessary” and could give people a “false sense of security,” is still required in Maine.

Just as some New Hampshire towns like Nashua and Portsmouth are taking the reins and imposing their own mandates, nothing in the loosening of state mandates takes away the powers of towns, cities, and private businesses to impose their own policies on the public.

If the New England governors want to return to normalcy and support the numerous workers and families supported by the region’s tourism industry, they must move to lift all pandemic-related restrictions post-haste. Struggling hospitality, food service, entertainment and recreation businesses need certainty that they will be able to get the most out of the 2021 summer season as possible.

Geographically, Maine makes up half of the entire New England region, with less than one-tenth of the population. The rural nature of the state lends itself to the “Vacationland” moniker, drawing nature-lovers from all over the eastern US and Canada. 

Maine is more dependent on tourism than New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, or New Hampshire. Over last summer, Maine hospitality workers and business owners lost more than 17% of their income, with very little opportunity to make it back once the summer was gone. 

Unfortunately, the border with Canada remains closed—Ontario province has even returned to lockdown. Maine families continue to struggle economically and socially from this policy. Maine is perennially one of the top 10 US states visited by Canadians, over 750,000 in 2016 alone, half of whom come from Ontario. Visitors from Canada alone spent almost $1.2 billion here in 2019, making up more than 14% of all overnight stays and more than 20% of all tourism dollars spent in the Pine Tree State. There is little doubt that the continued border closure is hitting Mainers hard, especially in Aroostook County.

The longer New England governors, especially Maine Governor Janet Mills, wait to give power back to the people, the longer and more difficult the economic recovery will be. Businesses all over the state are offering productive, high-paying jobs for people of all skill levels, but while federal pandemic unemployment insurance still pays out an extra $300, nearly 30,000 Maine workers are still missing from the labor force.

Festival and event planners all across the state have either already pulled the plug on their plans, or are still trying to figure out if it will be worth the effort this year. Bath Heritage Days, Yarmouth Clam Festival, Maine Lobster Festival, and the Lewiston-Auburn Balloon Festival are just a few of the lucrative summertime tourism events that have been cancelled for the second year in a row.

For every week that Mainers continue to wait for the administration to give the green light for summer 2021, thousands of workers, small businesses, and tourists who rely on these events will miss the way life used to be.

About Nick Murray

Nick Murray, of Cornish, 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 Maine.

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