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Gov. Janet Mills on Wednesday hinted that she may consider reopening the state’s economy on a regional basis and relaxing restrictions that have been criticized by the hospitality industry.
Mills appeared open to considering an earlier start to certain businesses than originally envisioned in her four-stage economic rollout plan released last week. Her Wednesday remarks contrasted with comments last Friday that she would stay the course on a plan that includes a 14-day quarantine for tourists into the summer in the face of ongoing health concerns.
Since then, the Democratic governor said she has continued talks with tourism, retail and other key industry representatives about modifying the rollout plan.
“I will say that we are looking closely every day at opportunities to pursue regional variations in terms of timing of reopening, particularly for rural counties.” Mills said at a news conference. “My administration will continue to engage with businesses and elected officials on this topic and we may have changes to announce in the coming days.”
Another big change could be allowing outdoor dining before Memorial Day, she said. While Mills’ current economic rollout plan let hair salons and a few other business sectors reopen on May 1, the second and third stages that include restaurants and hotels have reopenings slated for June 1 and spread throughout the summer.
“I was encouraged by the governor’s comments today, and am confident that she knows the urgency for restarting restaurants and hotels safely,” said Steve Hewins, president and CEO of HospitalityMaine, an industry association. “For all the businesses that depend on visitors, we cannot afford to lose the entire peak tourism season.”
Hewins has cautioned that any harm to the hospitality industry could ripple through the Maine economy, largely singling out the 14-day quarantine in Mills’ initial plan as a proposal that would drive visitors away. With $8 billion in revenue in 2019 and employing one in 10 Mainers, the tourism industry is the second-largest one contributing to Maine’s economy, he said.
Mills also said she was considering ways smaller retailers can do business safely and reopen sooner. Larger retailers, including grocery stores and pharmacies, already have customer limits for sizes of stores “and we’re looking at expanding those parameters for smaller retailers and retailers across the state,” she said.
Curtis Picard, president of the Retail Association of Maine, pointed to limitations on customers in stores that are already open in Maine, including plexiglass at cashier stations and social distancing requirements, as examples that other retailers could follow to reopen sooner.
“Grocery stores and pharmacies have developed solid protocols for safety that have worked,” he said.
Dana Connors, president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, said reopening on a regional basis “could be a significant advancement because it recognizes the state isn’t of one size or one condition with the coronavirus.”
Watch: Maine CDC coronavirus press conference, May 6