Coronavirus

Starting today, Maine businesses are no longer Gov. Mills’ COVID police

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Last week, Heather Johnson, Commissioner of the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD), announced on a monthly business community video call that the state would be shifting its COVID-19 restrictions for businesses to voluntary recommendations from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“Businesses still have the option to require certain activity, but the state will no longer be requiring it,” Johnson said of the shift to a “recommended but not required” model. The state’s overarching business rules, conveyed through DECD’s COVID-19 Prevention Checklists since the beginning of the governor’s business shutdowns, have been part of the administration’s evolving timeline of rolling back their orders. Johnson mentioned that Governor Janet Mills will be issuing an executive order outlining the change by the end of the week. The same day, Mills ordered the statewide mask mandate to end for all but those in schools and child care settings age 5 and older on May 24.

Before last week, the state was planning to lift outdoor capacity to 100% and indoor capacity to 75% on May 24, but these limits were fantasy because the DECD checklist still required physical distancing inside an establishment, a de facto capacity limit itself. With other measures like sanitizing surfaces and policing mask-wearing, public-facing firms have borne the brunt of the administration’s policy experiments over the course of the pandemic.

While the Mills administration had been waiting on the US CDC to change guidance before altering the state rules, it didn’t seem as though the agency was giving advance notice to states before announcing shifts in guidance. New Hampshire’s public health director lamented the CDC’s lack of notice in a briefing earlier this month. As a result, the Mills administration had to issue new rule changes two days in a row.

With this most recent announcement from Johnson, on top of revised rules from Gov. Mills on May 13 and 14, starting today, no business in Maine will be forced to adhere to onerous state micro-management. For months, public health officials have known the chance of contracting COVID-19 from surfaces is miniscule. Widespread asymptomatic transmission, the foundational rationale for requiring masks for everyone, has also been thoroughly debunked. An MIT study published recently found that while indoors, physical distancing rarely plays any difference in risk of infection, and more likely contributes to a “false sense of security.”

As Gov. Mills’ counterparts in Connecticut and Rhode Island said weeks ago, and in New Hampshire more than a month ago, the State of Maine has finally signaled to Maine’s service business owners and workers that they may take down their physical plastic barriers.

So, as it stands now, not only will capacity limits and distancing requirements be lifted today for all businesses, including restaurants and bars, the additional headaches of maintaining physical barriers between customers and staff, constant sanitization of surfaces, and policing of face coverings for all indoors will also be lifted. Finally, the state is catching up with the latest scientific understanding.

Yet, real questions remain. Why didn’t Gov. Mills lift these rules upon the US CDC’s announcement? If these rules no longer serve us, why make everyone wait another 10 days?

Maine Policy has many times expressed dismay at the frantic and fearful messaging from state authorities, and parroted by the media, over the last 15 months. Especially now, as the pandemic wanes and these lockdown-inspired rules recede, it is critical for many to psychologically heal from the tension and trauma of the last year, adults and children. 

State and federal CDC guidance still asks Maine’s youth to suffer through covering their faces and staying apart at school, in sports leagues or even at summer camp. Adults can sit close to one another at a restaurant or bar, but students are not allowed to sit near their own classmates during lunch. Only recently has the administration allowed schools to opt out of spacing requirements, but only by getting at least 30% of their students into a pooled testing program.

Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah says COVID-19 is beginning to affect young people “more systematically,” meaning they are a larger portion of cases. Of course they are, and so what? Those under 30 are the least-vaccinated group, but they also face an exceptionally low risk of severe illness, especially for healthy individuals.

This type of fearmongering continues to drum up unnecessary stress in the population to maintain the outdated and overbearing emergency rule, while ignoring the scientific evidence which shows (and has shown for over a year) that the virus does not affect the young as severely as the old, especially for those without underlying health conditions (specifically obesity). This does little to further compliance and more to undermine public trust in policymakers.

The pressure for adults to “follow the rules” and sacrifice has been completely overshadowed by the detrimental effects of lockdowns on young people, still learning about the world, trying to grow, meet their peers, and get an education. Despite the obvious population-level costs to this policymaking mindset, the most risk-averse public health officials are amplified by the same politicians who hold the immense power of emergency rule.

Mills and Shah have said they prefer to offer incentives for vaccination, but we have heard public health officials become very comfortable with the idea of dangling our freedoms in front of our masked faces. If only (an unspecified number of) people would do what they’re told and get vaccinated, we could finally end the restrictions. The rush to tie freedom with vaccination status is a race against common sense. 

Yet, they still hold the cards. Maine legislators must quash any potential for another lockdown and finally end Governor Mills’ State of Civil Emergency. The freedom of Maine people should not be held hostage by the waverings of single-person rule.

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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