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Subtle differences have emerged between Maine Democrats on coronavirus-related business restrictions, with lawmakers representing outlying areas in counties hit hardest by the virus breaking with Gov. Janet Mills and asking for greater transparency around her decisions.
The concerns are examples of the divide between communities known to have been hit hard by the virus and those that think they have not, a distinction difficult to parse due to lack of data but which came to the fore this week after the governor’s Wednesday decision to delay dine-in restaurant openings that were set for Monday in Cumberland, York and Androscoggin counties.
Legislative Democrats have shied from criticizing the governor directly and have turned back Republican calls to reconvene to strip Mills of the sweeping emergency powers she has used to manage the outbreak. But top Democrats have begun to put some pressure on the administration by setting committee hearings and calling for a greater role in the response.
Mills’ decision on restaurants highlighted the effects of decision-making based on county lines. Cumberland and Androscoggin counties, for example, have both dominant cities and farther-flung rural towns. The announcement frustrated many restaurants that had been buying supplies and calling workers back for rollouts under health precautions.
“My issue is that the whole county is being treated as Portland, when in reality [my district] is just as rural in terms of population and spacewise as any rural county is,” said Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, a moderate who represents towns in western Cumberland County.
A common thread has been a need for more information. Sen. Ned Claxton, D-Auburn, co-signed a letter with a Republican representative this month asking the state to consider applying to towns the same process it used to determine that rural counties could reopen.
Without more detailed data, Claxton said he cannot say whether the towns he represents should be given the chance to reopen. The Mills administration has cited privacy concerns as a basis for not releasing coronavirus data on a zip code level.
The administration’s communication effort has also been hammered. In a statement Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Nate Libby, D-Lewiston, called the short notice for restaurant owners “unacceptable,” saying that Mills did not consult with him or other lawmakers on the decision.
A spokesperson for Mills said that the governor would have liked to have given more notice, but needed to balance that desire with making policy decisions based on “the most current public health data and trends available.” She cited a recent surge in case counts fueled by long-term care facilities.
“It doesn’t grow in the flowerpots in the nursing home,” Mills said at a Wednesday news conference. “It comes from the community. It comes from the outside.”
But for Sen. Justin Chenette, D-Saco, the last-minute nature of the announcement highlighted the need for public meetings so people could understand how the state reached its decisions, even if they might not agree. Democratic leaders have scheduled several committee hearings on the state response over the next month, starting with a Friday budget panel meeting.
Earlier in the outbreak, the Mills administration held private briefings with members of the Legislature, though they stopped after the Bangor Daily News and other news outlets reported that the lack of public notice likely broke state law.
“There’s going to be adjustments along the way, but if these conversations are held publicly and with various stakeholders, at the very least there will be an understanding of why the decisions are being changed,” Chenette said.
On Friday, House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, and Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, reiterated a call for a task force to help Mills manage the response, with Jackson citing a need to avoid “unforeseen consequences.”
Mills shot back in a letter saying she doubted such a commission would be effective, instead saying it would “divert from the critical and time-sensitive work” the state is doing. She characterized the request as based on a “misimpression” of efforts to inform lawmakers.
Minority Republicans have been vocal in their criticism of Mills in recent weeks, though party leaders bucked a fringe effort to pursue impeachment. In contrast, Democrats have tempered criticism by emphasizing the unprecedented challenges of running the state under a public health emergency.
For example, Claxton said the timing of the restaurant announcement was “one of the things that we didn’t do absolutely the best way we could.” He also said “nobody’s ever done this before, so we don’t know what the right answers are.”
“I’m not necessarily criticizing the governor,” Diamond said. “I just think for the three remaining counties, things need to be fine-tuned.”
Watch: Janet Mills announces changes to June 1 reopening phase