The Blue Hill Public Library sign advises passers-by that the library is closed until further notice and to “stay safe.” ELLSWORTH AMERICAN PHOTO BY JENNIFER OSBORN

Nonessential businesses ordered to close to public



AUGUSTA — Governor Janet Mills announced new restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic on Tuesday, ordering nonessential businesses to close their public-accessible physical locations and sites where workers cannot be safely distanced from one other. The order effectively mandates what had previously been a recommendation.

“Do not go to the store because it feels like a good thing to do. Go to the store only when you really need something,” said Mills during a press conference in Augusta. “It’s not the time for discretionary shopping. It’s the time for only essential activities.”

The new restrictions took effect at 12:01 a.m. on Wednesday and will last for 14 days, until April 8.

The restrictions come as the number of Maine coronavirus cases rose to 142 spread over 10 counties. No cases have yet been reported in Hancock County (a case reported last week turned out to be a resident of Penobscot County). Of the 142 cases, 15 residents are hospitalized, said Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Seven residents have recovered.

The mandated closures will apply to businesses such as shopping malls, gyms, spas, barber shops, hair salons, tattoo and piercing parlors, massage facilities, nail technicians, cosmetologists and estheticians, electrolysis services, laser hair removal services and similar personal care and treatment facilities and services.

The closures do not apply to businesses such as food processing, agriculture, industrial manufacturing, construction, trash collection, grocery and household goods (including convenience stores), home repair and hardware and auto repair, pharmacies, behavioral providers, child care, post offices and shipping outlets, insurance, banks, gas stations, laundromats, veterinary clinics and animal feed and supply stores, shipping stores, public transportation and hotel and commercial lodging.

“We are trying to prevent an overload on our hospitals, on our health-care providers at all levels,” said Mills.

The executive order also orders the closure of nonessential businesses where more than 10 employees work in a space where “physical distancing” is not possible.

“We’re not shutting down businesses,” said Mills. “We’re shutting down public-facing physical plants.”

Businesses would still be allowed to continue operations that do not require in-person contact with customers or gatherings. Mills is also recommending that essential businesses with retail space of more than 5,000 square feet limit the number of customers to 100 at any one time and encourage curbside pickup.

“The next 15 days are critical,” said Mills. “We’re confronting an unprecedented challenge.”

Asked whether she would consider a statewide stay-at-home order, Mills said she is evaluating the situation hourly and waiting to see how such orders work in other states.

“The solutions we pursue must not be done simply because somebody else did it in another state or country,” said Mills. “The solutions must be right for Maine people.”

She added that there are also “public health risks to people staying in place.”

As of Tuesday morning, 3,014 tests had come back negative, said Shah. Roughly 1,300 tests were still pending.

“That number is unacceptable to us and we acknowledge that,” said Shah.

The state now has five commercial labs analyzing tests, in addition to the state CDC lab and one operated by MaineHealth. But there is still a backlog and time lag in processing the samples, in part because a chemical critical to processing the tests is in short supply nationwide. Shah said the state is looking into different equipment for processing the tests.

Shah once again urged residents to act as though the virus is in their county, which he said it likely is, even though that may not have yet been confirmed by testing.

“Given that what we are detecting in any outbreak is only the tip of the iceberg, now is the time to start taking public health action,” said Shah. “Everyone should start behaving as if the virus were in their county … The absence of evidence in this case is not evidence of absence.”

Shah said the state is also helping prepare hospitals for an increase in cases, distributing 22,000 pieces of personal protective equipment (PPE) on Monday and an additional 16,000 pieces on Tuesday. The PPE went to agencies around the state, including workers in the emergency medical services, hospitals, veterans homes, law enforcement agencies and agencies within the tribal nations. The state has also received a second shipment from the National Strategic Stockpile, said Shah.

As of Tuesday morning, said Shah, Maine had 77 ICU beds available statewide, 248 ventilators and 84 respiratory technicians. Officials have asked the federal government for an additional 300 ventilators, said Shah, but he noted that the “ventilator itself is necessary but not sufficient. We also need personnel as well as space.”

Kate Cough

Kate Cough

Kate covers the city of Ellsworth, including the Ellsworth School Department and the city police beat, as well as the towns of Amherst, Aurora, Eastbrook, Great Pond, Mariaville, Osborn, Otis and Waltham. She lives in Southwest Harbor and welcomes story tips and ideas. She can be reached at [email protected]