A chalkboard advertisement for Paddy Murphy's St. Patrick's Day celebration begins to fade from the weather on April 6. Bangor originally placed a curfew on businesses to curb St. Patrick's Day traffic as the coronavirus began to spread throughout the U.S. last month.

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Maine’s top public health official on Wednesday answered the key question on the minds of businesspeople: When will they be able to start operating again?

“I don’t know,” Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Protection, told the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce’s monthly Eggs & Issues business breakfast, which was held virtually for the first time because of the coronavirus outbreak.

Those are the three hardest words to tell people, Shah said, adding that science will dictate when public health interventions for the virus will be lifted. That will happen in the same step-by-step manner in which they were applied. Another expert noted a need for widespread testing before society can return to some form of normalcy.

[Our COVID-19 tracker contains the most recent information on Maine cases by county]

Gov. Janet Mills has taken a step-by-step approach on actions limiting social contact since Maine announced its first confirmed case of the virus less than three weeks ago. She declared an emergency in mid-March and later banned dine-in restaurant service and social gatherings of more than 10. Then, she closed public-facing nonessential businesses.

On March 31, she ordered people to stay home through April. That period was accompanied by two weeks of record unemployment filings in Maine and the U.S. and a massive federal response, including a $2.2 trillion stimulus package largely focused on payments to individuals and loans for small businesses.

“Unfortunately, in a vibrant economy, physical distancing is one of the things that can bring that economy almost to a screeching halt, as we’ve seen around the world,” he said. “I fully recognize the impact that these public health interventions and recommendations have had on each and every one of your businesses.”

Shah warned that even after business and daily life returns to normalcy, “things will be different, even though they might be inching towards normalcy.” He said it remains to be seen whether actions taken to keep people at home and curtail business activity worked or were “too much.”

“If after all of this is over there are those who wonder whether we did too much, well, that’s probably a pretty good sign that we did just about the right things,” he said.

The situation with the coronavirus is rare, because governments don’t typically suppress an economy intentionally and ask people to stay home and not participate in it, said Heather Johnson, commissioner of Maine Department of Economic and Community Development.

“We are looking structurally at how do we contract this economy in a way so we can spin it back up as quickly as possible when the time is appropriate,” she said.

Wide availability of testing is necessary before then as well to know who has the virus, said Dora Anne Mills, chief health improvement officer at MaineHealth. But there still is a shortage of tests in Maine and nationally. Testing at a state lab in Augusta is focused on vulnerable people.

Mills, who is the governor’s sister, said Maine also needs to see a sustained decrease in the number of cases over a period of a couple weeks before restrictions can be loosened.

“And we’re not there yet,” she said.

Watch: Nirav Shah on whether you should use fabric masks

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