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As of Monday, retail stores in 12 of Maine’s 16 counties can operate under new state guidelines as part of Gov. Janet Mills’ new rural reopening plan. Restaurants in those counties can open to some dine-in service starting May 18 after almost two months of being limited to take out and delivery.
There has been a noticeable sigh of relief from some in the business community with this partial easing of coronavirus-related restrictions. Coupled with the announcement that the state is poised to more than triple its coronavirus testing capacity through a partnership with IDEXX, it does seem at the moment that Maine is moving in the right direction. That does not mean the coronavirus risks have melted away like this past weekend’s snow.
The state’s rural reopening is essentially a shift in some responsibility, replacing a blanket government restriction with conditioned opening that requires businesses and their customers to engage in commerce with safety in mind — not just for their own health, but with an understanding of the continued risks posed to others by this virus, particularly to older individuals and people with underlying health conditions. The loosening of government restrictions doesn’t absolve anyone from continuing to be part of a solution that involves social distance, adaptation and caution. In fact, quite the opposite is true.
The realities of this virus and how it spreads demand that everyone consider their responsibilities to each other as members of a shared community, whether the government requires it or not. As more of Maine’s economy reopens, that will mean sustained leadership and action from businesses, and from customers as well.
“It is important all Mainers know that public health is the top priority for employers across the state,” Maine State Chamber of Commerce President Dana Conors said in a statement Friday welcoming Mills’ rural reopening plan. “These employers are taking significant steps and implementing necessary protocols to make sure they can get back to business responsibly, and Maine people can get back to work safely, as soon as possible.”
Many restaurants, for example, are already redefining the way they operate, adapting to new requirements and new customer preferences. At the Good Table in Cape Elizabeth, restaurant owner Lisa Kostopolous has turned to selling bulk groceries, grill kits, breakfast boxes, and “take ‘n’ bake” offerings like macaroni and cheese.
“We’re building a new business,” she told the BDN.
The state’s 5-page checklist for restaurants in the rural reopening has a long list of steps for businesses to take, like having employees wear cloth face coverings and practice good hand hygiene, and spacing dining tables 6 feet apart, among many other measures.
As business owners redesign their operations, consumers should also be adapting their own behaviors. That same checklist for restaurants includes requirements related to customers, which reiterate that, in accordance with an order from Mills, people should be wearing face coverings in public places where social distancing is challenging. Based on the checklist, that means wearing a face covering when waiting in line to pick up food or going to the restroom, but not when seated at a table (which should already be spaced 6 feet from others). There are other sensible steps people can all take to help slow the spread of the virus, like not going to the restaurant at all if they have a fever or cough. Those are small prices to pay — inconveniences in most cases, really — in order to be part of a safer economic recovery.
The White House has already developed “ Guidelines for Opening Up America Again,” which notably include recommendations like wearing face coverings in public and the use of social distancing and protective equipment at businesses. Everyone has a responsibility, regardless of government requirements, to try to be part of a safe reopening to help prevent a resurgence of the virus, and to help prevent the need for an “Opening Up America Again, Again” plan. Going through this once has been hard enough.
We keep going back to a quote from several weeks ago, when a protestor in Augusta was speaking about Mills’ coronavirus restrictions.
“Look, we’re tired of this. We want to be able to do business, and we want to be able to do it safely on our own. We don’t need these measures to be mandatory, we will do these anyways,” said a member of the group Mainers Against Excessive Quarantine, according to WGME.
The gradual reopening is an opportunity for those protestors, and for everyone else, to prove that they care about doing things safely. Nobody was happy to see much of Maine’s economy get shuttered, and nobody should want to risk another spike or another potential tightening of restrictions. The phased reopening underway here in Maine needs to happen carefully and responsibly, with a healthy dose of reality from business owners, their employees, and their customers.
Watch: The risks associated with reopening rural parts of the state