Brandon Harrington shoots at a target at a gun range in Holden at Maine Military Supply in this 2014 file photo. Gun stores were among the businesses deemed nonessential and ordered to close in many circumstances by Maine Gov. Janet Mills this week in response to the coronavirus outbreak. Credit: Brian Feulner

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AUGUSTA, Maine — An order from Gov. Janet Mills this week to close public-facing nonessential businesses due to coronavirus included gun shops, though advocates are pressing her to reverse that while some remain open or shift to restaurant-like curbside service.

The issue gained prominence on Thursday, when Kittery Trading Post, which sells guns, apparel and recreation equipment, was ruled a nonessential business by the state under the Democratic governor’s order and closed in the afternoon, according to the Portsmouth Herald.

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Mills’ order relied on a U.S. Department of Homeland Security guidance outlining the types of workers who maintain critical infrastructure, with health care, grocery, pharmacy and utility workers and first responders remaining on the job. Large stores such as Walmart that sell both groceries and sporting goods including guns can remain open. Gun stores are not included alongside shopping malls, salons and gyms, among others.

Ultimate decisions regarding essential and nonessential businesses fall to governors and local officials. The politically charged status of gun stores has varied as states respond to the outbreak. Texas said they were essential on Friday, while the sheriff in California’s Los Angeles County closed gun stores earlier this week, the Los Angeles Times reported.

In a Friday statement, Kate Foye, a spokesperson for Maine’s economic development department said Mills “did not arrive at the decision to limit some businesses lightly.” But Foye said stores that “primarily or exclusively sell sporting goods” are not essential under the order.

It means they can operate only if they prohibit contact between customers and vendors. The order says businesses that violate the provisions could be penalized by licensing agencies, while police can also enforce emergency orders, and it is a misdemeanor to not comply with an “just or reasonable order.” The state has outlined no enforcement plans.

The Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, a gun-rights group, said in a statement that gun shops provide an essential service by allowing people to buy weapons for “self-defense and protection of property.” David Trahan, the group’s executive director, said he has discussed the issue with the Mills administration and thinks gun stores were affected as an unintended consequence.

But he added that closing them “doesn’t make a lot of sense” since Mainers can still buy guns in heavier-populated stores such as Walmart. He said his group has a good relationship with Mills and wants to negotiate a solution but that anger was brewing in the gun-rights grassroots.

“Issues like this take a life of their own, and I can see that growing concern in the public gaining momentum,” Trahan said.

The Kittery store was closed despite a Facebook post saying it implemented recommendations for large stores issued by Mills on Tuesday, including limiting the number of customers allowed inside to 100, closing fitting rooms and reminding people to stay 6 feet or more from each other. Comparable stores including L.L. Bean and Cabela’s had voluntarily closed to the public.

Proprietors were reacting differently to the order by Friday. Howell’s Guns in Gray said on Facebook it was staying open, but only for curbside pickup. Nick Ayotte, owner of Northeastern Firearms in Turner, said while he considered curbside service for ammunition, he didn’t see a “loophole” in Mills’ order allowing it.

Ayotte questioned why the state would close shops that can provide federal background checks when private sales do not. He said he would focus on online sales for the time being. He said the number of people buying guns had been increasing as the virus intensified in the region.

“We’re seeing a lot of first time buyers, people who are scared of the unknown,” Ayotte said.

Old Town Trading Post was open Friday, though owner Dave Lorenz said he was trying to live up to the order’s spirit by limiting people in the store at once to 10 and sending a request to the state to be considered essential. He said Mills’ move last week to start the open-water fishing season early and waive license requirements led to demand in his bait shop, which has been cleaned with bleach and closed to customers while operating on a carry-out basis.

“It’s an awful situation,” Lorenz said of the outbreak. “I don’t care which direction you turn.”

BDN writer Caitlin Andrews contributed to this report.

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...