Gov. Janet Mills stands to honor an attendee during her State of the State address at the Capitol in this Jan. 21, 2020, file photo.

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AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Janet Mills ramped up Maine’s coronavirus fight on Tuesday, ordering public-facing businesses that are nonessential to close just after midnight while allowing grocery stores, pharmacies and other businesses deemed essential to remain open.

The Democratic governor largely resisted edicts in the state’s step-by-step coronavirus response up until Tuesday. Last week, she declared a state of emergency and followed it with an order to close eateries to dine-in service and ban social gatherings of 10 or more while only recommending businesses such as shopping malls, gyms and theaters close.

Mills’ Tuesday order elevated those latter recommendations to orders while stopping short of the increasingly drastic actions in other states aimed at slowing the spread of the virus while allowing most businesses to continue operating. As of Tuesday, 15 states had issued stay-at-home orders to most residents, according to The New York Times.

The businesses deemed nonessential — which must close at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday for two weeks — include shopping malls, gyms and salons. It largely affects downtown areas and shopping centers, though many such businesses have already closed. The Maine State Chamber of Commerce backed the decision in a statement after Mills made the announcement.

Mills told reporters at a Tuesday news conference in Augusta that she has considered all options when it comes to restricting travel, including stay-at-home orders. She said she wanted to frame what Mainers could do as opposed to what they cannot, adding “there are public health risks to people staying in place as well as public health risks to people not staying in place.”

“We want everyone to be cautious and courageous at the same time,” she said.

Among the essential businesses allowed to stay open are medical facilities, grocery stores, pharmacies and manufacturing facilities. The closure order also applies to non-essential workplaces that are not public-facing but require more than 10 workers to convene in a space where physical distancing is not possible.

Businesses will be allowed to operate if employees can work from home. State government remains open, though 70 percent of workers are working remotely, according to Mills’ office.

Mills’ order was accompanied by recommendations for large stores such as Walmart and Target to limit the number of people in the store at one time to 100, enhance curbside services, closing fitting rooms and reminding customers to remain six feet apart, among other things.

The governor’s move comes as the virus threatens a shutdown of American society with no end in sight. Markets have plummeted over the past few weeks, though Congress was closing in on a deal Tuesday around a $2 trillion stimulus package aimed at beating back a recession.

In Maine, the first case of the virus was announced less than two weeks ago. The number of confirmed cases rose to 118 as of Tuesday, with 74 cases alone in Cumberland County. The state’s aging and rural population is more vulnerable to serious illness from the virus than any state but West Virginia, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Governors are taking these actions in the absence of early and robust testing for the virus, noted Wendy Mariner, a professor of health law at the Boston University School of Public Health, who said she prefers the type of step-by-step approach that Mills and many other governors have used to announce restrictions on movement or business operations.

Mariner said while “there is a danger” in not coming down harder in an outbreak, people can more easily adjust to incremental changes as the state’s response unfolds rather than abrupt orders, which makes it easier to maintain the public trust.

“It’s critically important to have accurate information that you’re giving them and enable them to trust that you are acting in their best interest as governor,” she said.

Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...