COVID-19 – It’s Time to Pivot Maine

It’s time to do more.

I had a conversation with a friend who still pops into get coffee at the local cafe on his morning walk. A local business that sells antiques in town remains open saying “We’ll respect your choice not to come in, please respect our choice to honor our obligation to our dealers.” People continue to make fairly regular trips to the grocery store “because its open, and we need staples.” I spoke with someone who usually doesn’t eat out very often but who is now buying takeout from local restaurants several times a week as a way “to support local businesses in this difficult time.”

Screen Shot 2020-03-23 at 1.53.37 PMWhen, on 18 March, Maine Governor Janet Mills announced an executive order prohibiting gatherings of more than 10 people and closing dine-in facilities at restaurants and bars, a reporter asked her: “I hate to be gloomy, but having heard some people say that Maine needs to follow the example of some other states and shut everything down it possibly can, have you talked about it? Is there a threshold at which you take tough actions?”

“This is pretty aggressive action,” Governor Mills said in response. “Ask any of the restaurants or bars who are going to be losing tremendous business. This is pretty aggressive action. Telling people they can’t congregate in groups of more than 10 is pretty aggressive action across the State of Maine. Actually, our actions today are not dissimilar to those of say Pennsylvania and certain other states where they’ve done pretty similar things and made strong recommendations about public facing businesses but not mandates. We’re being measured.”

When asked “was there any consideration to maybe a ‘stay-in-place’ order,” the Governor simply responded “No.”

On 15 March, when many people, including me, were asking why k-12 schools were remaining open in light of the data, Dr. Dora Anne Mills, Senior Vice President of Community Health for MaineHealth, wrote “While I understand why many schools are closing, I also understand why many are staying open for now.” She cited (in a long and thoughtful post on Facebook) US CDC’s recommendation for schools not to close at that time.

Time to Pivot

I look at each of these conversations or actions through the lens of the data, and I keep having that sinking feeling that we are being too measured, especially when it’s clear that, based on their actions, much of the public is either unaware of the severity of the situation or willfully ignorant of the data. As I wrote on 18 March:

Each new measure we have taken as a State and now as a City mirrors a measure taken by a place a few days or weeks ahead of us in terms of the spread of the virus. At some point, we need to get ahead of this and realize that taking extreme measures now will mean we won’t have to continually look back and wish we had acted sooner. There is little doubt in my mind that more severe mitigation actions are on the horizon to limit the spread of the virus, but the data show us clearly that every day we fail to act matters. We need to act now.

It’s time to do more. It’s time to pivot. But what does that look like?

I have a friend who works at a popular local restaurant that has been crazy busy with take-out since they halted restaurant operations before the Governor’s executive order. Now they are ceasing all operations given a thoughtful assessment of the risks and the ongoing stress on employees of operating a business that is not only following “the letter of the law” but is also actively committed to community health and reducing the spread the virus. I would argue those are two different things, which is a huge part of the problem.

This restaurant has been taking extreme precautions but, even so, ultimately decided those precautions are simply not enough given what’s at stake. There’s been only a skeleton crew, and they’ve all agreed to only go to the restaurant and then go home. They let nobody into the restaurant, and they are sanitizing everything after each order is delivered. Unfortunately, customers were not always as careful–getting out of their cars, not practicing social distancing and the like.

While the decision to close was a difficult one, and while the hardship on the business will undoubtedly be significant, one employee put it all into perspective: “Even if we are doing it 100 percent safely, it does seem like being open diminishes the severity of the situation.”

Let’s remember that on 18 March, Governor Mills strongly urged non-essential public-facing businesses to close their doors. Getting take-out is, for most, not essential. Going into a cafe to get a coffee, even if it is only doing take-away, is not essential. Buying antiques or speciality food items is not essential. The grocery stores remain open not for our convenience but so that we can, if necessary, make infrequent trips to get basic supplies that allow us to stay home, where we can cook our own meals, make our own coffee and generally act, as Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine CDC said we should in today’s Maine CDC press conference, like COVID-19 is already in our community. As if each of us have it.

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No disrespect to the Governor, but it increasingly seems clear that, if the public is not going to take this situation seriously on its own, we need the state and federal government to implement more aggressive actions in the name of pubic health. We probably even need mandates.

For non-essential public-facing businesses to tell those of us who are taking COVID-19 seriously that we need to respect their choice to stay open because they are respecting our choice not to shop, I once again implore you to look at the data.* If you look at the data on transmission rates, asymptomatic transmission and the virus’ ability to persist on inanimate surfaces, you would see that your choice is affecting all of us even if we don’t come into your place of business. If you’d like help finding or understanding those data, please reach out.

We are in this together, and it’s time to start acting like it. Let’s all take a deep breath and really begin to think as a community.

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EDIT: In order to clarify the businesses about which I was speaking, I added “non-essential public-facing” to the paragraph “For non-essential public-facing businesses to tell those of us who are taking COVID-19 seriously that we need to respect their choice to stay open because they are respecting our choice not to shop, I once again implore you to look at the data.* If you look at the data on transmission rates, asymptomatic transmission and the virus’ ability to persist on inanimate surfaces, you would see that your choice is affecting all of us even if we don’t come into your place of business. If you’d like help finding or understanding those data, please reach out.”

 

About Ret Talbot

Ret Talbot is a freelance writer who covers fisheries at the intersection of science and sustainability. His work has appeared in publications such as National Geographic, Mongabay, Discover Magazine, Ocean Geographic and Coral Magazine. He lives on the coast of Maine with his wife, scientific illustrator Karen Talbot.
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