According to the state Department of Labor, Maine has 3,220 eating and drinking establishments, which employ 48,117 people. On average, they earn about $400 a week.

Over the course of a year, that’s close to $1 billion for the Maine economy as it’s spent on rent, mortgages, health care, transportation, tuition, food, clothing, taxes and other expenses.

So it was no small decision by Gov. Janet Mills to order all of those 3,330 businesses to shut down for in-person eating and drinking for the next two weeks, effective 6 p.m. Wednesday. But it was the right call.

As the oldest state in the nation with high rates of respiratory illnesses like asthma, Maine is especially vulnerable to a disease like COVID-19, the global pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus. Slowing the exponential growth of cases now is vital to preventing a public health catastrophe, like the one seen in Italy, where hospitals have been overwhelmed with more very sick people than they can treat.

Many Mainers had already decided to practice social distancing and stay home, and some restaurants and bars had curtailed their business on a voluntary basis. Some municipalities instituted curfews that prevented the kinds of gatherings that would be most likely to spread the disease, like Portland’s St. Patrick’s Day curfew, which started at 6 a.m. Tuesday and lasted all night. But not all businesses and patrons were sure about what they should do, and that’s why clear guidance from the governor was needed.

Mills used her emergency powers Wednesday to ban all gatherings of 10 or more people, and encouraged nonessential public-facing businesses such as gyms, theaters or hair salons to shut their doors for the two-week period. But for restaurants and bars, it was more than a suggestion: Mills ordered a two-week halt to eating and drinking inside businesses. Takeout service is still allowed as long as social distancing practices are observed.

There is no question that we all will benefit if this move successfully slows the spread of COVID-19. But we can’t forget the sacrifice that will be required of our 48,117 neighbors and their employers, who will lose all or most of their pay for at least two weeks. We should expect that people will not be able to pay their bills and that they will need help from the government to avoid evictions, foreclosures and defaults.

Nobody knows if this will be the last time the state will have to shut down eateries and bars before we are out from under the coronavirus threat, or how quickly businesses will rebound after the ban is lifted. Some people will almost certainly not have jobs to come back to, and some of these businesses could find themselves shut down for good.

Saving lives is a top priority right now, but so is taking care of the people who have been most directly affected economically. Customers can continue to support their favorite places by ordering takeout meals and buying gift certificates. But that won’t be enough.

The spread of this disease has illustrated how closely our fortunes are entwined – how quickly something that’s bad for just a few people can disrupt everyone’s life. The same is true for the economic repercussions of the coronavirus.

It will take bold action by the federal government to put the money back into Maine’s economy that is being drained out by this public health crisis.

 


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