As most expected, Gov. Janet Mills on Tuesday issued an extension and a broadening of her executive order limiting work and travel in Maine. The coronavirus has penetrated New England, and hundreds, if not thousands of new cases are expected here soon.

The “stay at home” portions of the order track what most people were already doing – one can go out to buy food, gasoline and medicine, and get some fresh air and recreation, but otherwise it’s best to stay home.

The parts of the order more difficult to interpret concern what is, and is not, an essential business. For the duration, we won’t be getting haircuts, manicures, therapeutic massages or other personal care services.

For most of us, we can manage, but it’s worth noting that most of these services are provided by sole proprietors or very small businesses, whose employees rarely qualify for unemployment and thus will sacrifice their entire income for weeks, or possibly months.

A more complicated situation is unfolding at Bath Iron Works, one of the state’s largest private employers and by far its largest manufacturing operation. Since COVID-19 began spreading, the yard’s unions have been calling for BIW’s shutdown, with paid leave for all employees.

The company hasn’t really responded, since it doesn’t have to. As a Department of Defense contractor, BIW is already defined as “essential,” but there are still troubling aspects this ruling doesn’t address.

For one thing, BIW is privately owned, by General Dynamics, and hence not bound to follow guidelines already in use at publicly owned Navy facilities, such as the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. A letter last week from the Maine Congressional delegation asking BIW management to follow these rules suggest that it hasn’t.

To be sure, management hasn’t been idle. It’s announced increased cleaning and disinfection during shifts, and has provided box lunches from local restaurants to replace the food carts that normally create lines outside.

This doesn’t answer the key question, though. Is it really practical for BIW employees to maintain six feet of physical distance – a more accurate term than “social distance” – while they work?

Given that, at peak hours, BIW is one of the most densely populated spaces in Maine, comparable to a small football stadium, it’s hard to see how.

So far, only one reported case affecting an employee has surfaced, but given the dense human environment, the virus’s spread seems every bit as likely as in a nursing home or assisted living center – and given the numbers, some 8,000 employees, potentially a lot more serious.

Jessica Chubbuck-Goodwin, president of Local S7, one of the unions, makes a fair point in saying, “The work we do is extremely important, but it’s not on the same level as hospitals and other medical care facilities.”

Given that so many Mainers have been asked to sacrifice their livelihoods without compensation, it’s also fair to ask what BIW management is sacrificing to keep workers safe, and the state healthy?

Aside from a few gestures, sacrifice is hard to see. Unpaid leave – the company’s solution – has apparently been embraced by 60% of the workforce. Some of those absent may be staying home to take care of children suddenly without daycare, or relatives without home care, but many must be concerned that they can’t avoid the virus at work.

Given what we’ve seen as close to Maine as New York and Connecticut, where the full force of the pandemic is being felt, it’s hard to call those fears unfounded. And, were BIW not a defense contractor, it’s unquestionable that the thrust of Gov. Mills’s orders would have led to much tighter restrictions.

Rather than wait for further orders from the Navy that may come too late, BIW management should move swiftly to meet its employees at least half-way. Offering partial compensation instead of just unpaid leave could go a long way toward helping families ride out the crisis.

It’s not credible that doing so would somehow compromise the future of the company. All defense yards are being affected, and there’s no real question that Congress would provide a bailout if work and contracts indeed fall behind schedule.

This has often been routine in past instances when costs rise beyond estimates; price competition among yards is nothing like that between automakers or software firms, where it’s intense.

The Pentagon may consider BIW essential, but that shouldn’t mean it’s sacrosanct. We’re all in this together, and that means that everyone, and every business, should do their fair share.

Douglas Rooks, a Maine editor, reporter, opinion writer and author for 35 years, has published books about George Mitchell, and the Maine Democratic Party. He welcomes comment at [email protected]

Comments are not available on this story.