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Last week, the Bangor Daily news reported that Maine was one of only two states nationally where the number of new coronavirus cases were actually declining. In the rest of the country, there have been significant increases in daily identified cases, and even in some areas, there are rising deaths; however, in Maine we have been bucking the trend.
The other state was New Hampshire, our next door neighbor. These two states succeeding on things like COVID-19 case counts, hospitalizations and fatalities where the other states are struggling offers a unique opportunity to analyze the decisions they have made as it compares to those made by other states.
The national narrative was built early, and has been repeated ad nauseum for weeks: Reckless governors in the south and the west opened up their states too soon, and due to their irresponsibility the country as a whole is suffering mightily.
That has certainly been the message of the Mills administration, which has told the public that their highly restrictive approach to fighting the virus is the reason that Maine is succeeding.
But is this true? Is Maine doing as well as it is because of the series of decisions the governor has made?
The New Hampshire experience throws a heavy dose of cold water on that argument, because in so many ways it has approached the pandemic from a different perspective, and has done many things that have been very different than Maine, yet it is experiencing similar results.
To be fair to Gov. Janet Mills, New Hampshire has also done many things that Maine has done, and I myself had reasonably complimentary things to say about her handling of the virus in the beginning. There is no question in my mind that any governor in her position had a duty to err on the side of caution in protecting the people of the state, so I did not necessarily have a problem with several of her early decisions.
However, when Mills began to issue executive orders mandating, under force of law, any number of behaviors, I started to become deeply uncomfortable with what she was doing, particularly given that she was doing it all alone through perpetually declared emergencies with no involvement of the elected representatives of the people in the Maine Legislature.
While it is true that New Hampshire has had higher case counts and fatalities than Maine, an obvious culprit for that is the state’s status as a suburb of greater Boston, and the huge scale of the initial outbreak in Massachusetts. Despite that early struggle, the number of new cases in New Hampshire have come down and look very much like Maine’s.
In New Hampshire, Gov. Chris Sununu lifted the crowd gathering size limit on July 1, whereas Maine continues to have an upper limit of 50 people at any location. New Hampshire never had an executive order mandating masks, whereas Janet Mills issued such an order on May 1. New Hampshire has allowed bars to be open with 50 percent capacity, as long as they maintain social distancing and limit interactions in the bar area. Mills ordered indoor bars to remain closed on June 22, and that order stands indefinitely with no signs of being lifted. And New Hampshire exempted the entire New England region — including Massachusetts and Rhode Island — from their quarantine restrictions on July 2, while Maine has maintained the quarantine on those two states despite the importance of them to Maine’s hospitality industry.
Finally, New Hampshire’s back to school guidance was light, and empowered local schools to make their own determinations, while Maine’s is a centralized attempt to dictate decisions to schools, and is so restrictive that it mandates children as young as two years old wear masks.
Yet somehow, despite this, New Hampshire was succeeding right along with Maine. How?
By my estimation, it is because of the isolated rural character of both states. But more important perhaps is that their governing philosophy has been geared toward enlisting the citizens of their state to do the right thing, without the oppressive force of mandates.
They don’t have a mask mandate, for instance, yet from my own personal observation having spent some time there recently, their people appear to be wearing masks about as often as we do in Maine. They don’t have an upper limit on crowd sizes, but their citizens aren’t rushing to go host events of 500 people. They have been more open to people coming into the state without quarantine, yet their hospitality businesses are being careful and are taking many steps to protect their customers.
In short, they are trusting their people.
Matthew Gagnon of Yarmouth is the chief executive officer of the Maine Policy Institute, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. A Hampden native, he previously served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C.