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AUGUSTA, Maine — The full weight of the coronavirus pandemic hit Gov. Janet Mills on a gray Sunday afternoon in the middle of March, a few days after the first case of the deadly virus had been confirmed in Maine.
Flanked by advisers and a sign language interpreter with social distancing rules not yet in place, the Democratic governor announced she was declaring a state of emergency, a move that would set off a series of unprecedented orders in an effort to stop the spread of the virus.
“Nobody runs for governor thinking, ‘Well, one day I’ll proclaim a state of civil emergency,’” Mills said in an interview with the Bangor Daily News on Friday.
The governor, who was elected as part of a Democratic takeover in 2018, mixed big ideas like offshore wind with ordinary ones like transportation bonds in her State of the State address in January. But she has seen her second year in the Blaine House upended by a global pandemic which killed 19 Mainers and sickened at least 633 as of Sunday.
It has catapulted Mills from a good-times governor to a leader whose tenure might be most remembered for a massive public health crisis likely to leave a lasting effect on Maine and its economy. Within three weeks, the state saw one in 10 workers file unemployment claims, a figure that quadrupled job losses during the recession from 2007 to 2009.
“I hate to say this, but I think the biggest challenges of her administration are ahead,” said Peter Mills, the governor’s brother and the executive director of the Maine Turnpike Authority.
Her emergency declaration on March 15 was a preview of the more than 20 coronavirus-related executive orders she would sign in the span of a few weeks, restricting the size of gatherings, the businesses allowed to remain open and the places Mainers can travel.
“Every time I sign my name, I think about the hardships that we’re imposing on businesses large and small, on people who are waitstaff, delivery people, grocery workers, truck drivers, insurance salespeople, lawyers, you name it,” the governor said.
Mills has worked on increasingly stringent coronavirus measures in concert with a close group of advisers. Peter Mills said the governor’s strength lies in the relationships she built as attorney general and a state legislator, saying that working with “such really astonishing people” since she took office had made the governor as happy as he had ever seen her.
That cast includes Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, who has gained a passionate following for his calm demeanor and quirky analogies at daily press briefings. Typically, Mills appears only when a grim milestone is met — such as the first case or death — or a policy shift is announced.
Mills, who comes from a political family, has contrasted with counterparts like New York’s Andrew Cuomo who have made frequent television appearances during the crisis. She has largely ceded to Shah. When asked about it, the governor said it was not up to her to “make medical decisions or to express public health opinions.”
Her executive actions have been in line with experts and met with little opposition. She has faced some criticism from not doing more. The state employees’ union, for example, has repeatedly asked her to send home non-essential workers. The state has said most public are working remotely, but Mills has not authorized a universal dismissal and government is open.
As the statewide shutdown continues — Mills’ current stay-at-home order runs through April 30 — the challenges of navigating the pandemic are only expected to grow. The extended closures have already wreaked economic havoc. People may get antsier the longer they last.
Assistant Senate Minority Leader Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, said he had recently heard complaints from conservatives about government overreach. He did not fault Mills, but he pointed to a bipartisan federal expansion of unemployment insurance as a top-down idea that might make it harder for Maine’s economy to rebound if the virus recedes here sooner than in other states.
The effects of a coronavirus-induced recession could be longlasting. Years of surpluses helped Maine end the 2019 fiscal year with nearly $240 million in its rainy day fund. But increased spending on the virus coupled with declines in tax revenue is likely to change that.
“I think governance is going to get hard, because instead of coming in and figuring out what bills we were going to fund afterwards, we’re going to have to look at where we’re going to do our curtailment,” Timberlake said.
Mills said her priorities for the second half of her term have not changed, noting that the outbreak had amplified the importance of health care, while adding that other issues like climate change were not going away. The circumstances, however, have changed. Mills will be responding much of the time rather than setting an agenda.
“I haven’t always agreed with everything she’s done in her life. I don’t always agree with her now,” said Rep. Lois Reckitt, D-South Portland, who co-founded the Maine Women’s Lobby with Mills 40 years ago. “But I know she’s smart, competent and clear-headed and that’s exactly what we need right now.”
Watch: Janet Mills speaks to people who think they’re not at risk