Maine Gov. Janet Mills speaks at a news conference in Augusta in this April 28, 2020, file photo. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty | AP

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The owners of four restaurants in southern Maine counties still under a shutdown order, but located near rural counties that have already opened dining rooms to customers, on Monday sued Gov. Janet Mills in York County Superior Court, asking a judge to allow them to open immediately.

Terri Perreault, owner of the Morning Glory Diner in Bridgton; Michelle and Joel Hapgood, owners of the Campfire Grille in Bridgton; Gary and Chris Searles, owners of the Olde Mill Tavern in Harrison; and Bill Palladino, owner of the Shed Restaurant and Willy’s Ale Room, both in Acton, allege that Mills’ order violates the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It provides that no state can “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” It comes amid a number of other challenges to the governor’s mandates during the pandemic.

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

Mills initially said that all restaurants in the state could reopen earlier this month, but later delayed restaurants from opening in Androscoggin, Cumberland and York counties, where the highest concentrations of the coronavirus have been reported.

“These Mainers were told by Gov. Mills that they could open their restaurants June 1,” the restaurants’ attorney, Stephen Smith of Augusta, said. “Our clients purchased food to fill their coolers, only to be told, at the eleventh hour, that Gov. Mills had changed her mind. At this point, our clients are no longer being governed, they are being ruled.”

A request for comment from the Maine Attorney General’s office, which must represent Mills, was not immediately returned Monday.

Attorney General Aaron Frey has said previously that the governor’s orders were written to comply with the constitution.

“The executive orders and the restarting plan at issue in this lawsuit were carefully crafted and have been reviewed and updated in order to protect Mainers’ health during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Frey said. “We will represent the governor and will vigorously defend the constitutionality of the challenged executive orders and restarting plan and the governor’s authority to protect public health.”

The restaurants that filed suit against the governor are all less than 6 miles from the Oxford County line, where restaurants were able to reopen last week.

They claim they are facing permanent closure because of the governor’s shutdown. The Campfire Grille estimated its losses at $170,000 and the Olde Mill Tavern estimated its losses at between $160,000 and $200,000. Losses were not listed for the other plaintiffs.

The Searles claimed they spent $16,000 in preparation for a June 1 opening only to have the decision reversed by Mills.

Mills told restaurant owners they could sell the food they had purchased in advance of their planned openings to state prisons to help recoup some of their costs.

Smith said that the 99 deaths in Maine from COVID-19 aren’t a compelling enough reason under the law for Mills to keep restaurants and businesses closed, especially in towns where few cases have been reported.

“Now that Gov. Mills has released virus-related information by ZIP code, it is clear that Gov. Mills’ Restarting Plan to blanketly close all dine-in restaurants within these three counties, and not by town or ZIP code, is not the least-restrictive method available, [which the law requires]” he said.

Smith also represents businesses in southern Maine who sued Mills in federal court in Bangor over her reopening plans for the state. That lawsuit is pending.