As she closed out her first official speech as governor, Janet Mills repeated a simple message aimed at native Mainers here and abroad as well as anyone considering starting a new life in the state.

“Welcome home,” Mills said.

Fifteen months and one pandemic later, Mills has temporarily dropped the “welcome” part and adopted a sterner, cautionary tone as she urges – even requires – Maine residents and visitors alike to stay apart, stay safe …

“Stay home,” she said in an April 3 radio address.

For Mills and her 49 counterparts nationwide, the coronavirus crisis and their responses to it will likely define their terms in office and potentially their entire public service careers.

So far, Mills has demonstrated a measured, cautious approach that often defers to Maine’s long-held traditions of local control – at least initially – but has also exercised her emergency powers. The former attorney general has been careful to tread lightly on constitutional issues, such as travel restrictions. Yet she has maintained a lower profile than some other governors, preferring instead to let the state’s head epidemiologist do much of the talking.

A former state lawmaker, Mills said no governor anticipates having to proclaim a civil state of emergency enabling them to “take whatever action is necessary” to save lives, including business closures, quarantines and travel restrictions.

“That’s not why you run for governor,” Mills said in a socially distanced phone interview last week. “You don’t run for governor thinking you will, at some point, shut down parts of the economy, ask people to stay in their homes. It’s an extraordinary time.”

Gov. Janet Mills, left, and Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, offer updates about state efforts to test for and deal with the coronavirus on March 12 at the Maine State House in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

THE ASCENT OF GOVERNORS

It’s an extraordinary time that has re-elevated the role of governors – in part because only governors have the constitutional authority to take certain actions, but also because of inconsistent, conflicting messages on the pandemic from the White House.

As a March 17 headline in The New York Times declared, “Once political B-listers, governors lead nation’s coronavirus response.”

As of Saturday, the United States had more than 519,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases and about 20,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University and The Associated Press. The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported 616 confirmed cases and 19 deaths in the state Saturday.

As the pandemic began spreading in the United States, it was the nation’s governors who assumed the lead in taking drastic steps to prevent the deadly virus from spiraling out of control and overwhelming health care systems.

In Maine, those steps were rolled out gradually.

For instance, Mills recommended but did not require that schools suspend all in-classroom instruction until March 31, although seemingly all school districts across the state complied weeks before the mandate. Similarly, Mills allowed Portland, South Portland and other cities to move first on issuing stay-at-home orders or curtailing some businesses.

“To some extent, what I’ve done is start with recommendations and phone calls and asking people to do the right thing in circumstances, and then issuing executive orders,” Mills said. “We have tailor-made our executive orders to Maine’s culture, Maine’s business community and Maine’s population, given that we have the most dispersed population in the country and that we are a rural state.”

But Mills was out ahead of states on other issues.

She was among the first in New England to prohibit social gatherings of more than 10 people on March 18, five days before Massachusetts and six days before New Hampshire. The Maine CDC was also among the first states to request distributions of personal protective equipment from the national stockpile.

This past week, as public health officials watched with alarm voters line up at Wisconsin polling places, Mills moved Maine’s June 9 primary elections to July 14.

Her March 24 order closing all public-facing locations of nonessential businesses, such as fitness centers and hair salons, came three days after a similar measure in Vermont and one day after Massachusetts but two days before closures in New Hampshire.

By the time Mills announced a mandatory stay-at-home order March 31, effectively shutting down all but essential businesses statewide, Maine had more than 300 confirmed cases and five deaths from COVID-19.

Nearly every other New England and Northeast state had already done so, prompting questions in the days before Mills’ announcement about why Maine had yet to adopt a stance widely considered as most protective of public health.

Asked last week about the timing, Mills said she was “pretty much in line with other New England states” considering where Maine was on the much-discussed “curve” of the spreading virus.

“If I had done that a month before, people would have gone, ‘What are you thinking? There are no cases here!’” Mills said. “We are measuring things day by day, hour by hour and taking actions that seem appropriate at that time based solely on science” and the advice of health professionals.

Gov. Janet Mills poses for a portrait Friday in her office at the Maine State House. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

 ‘RESPECTING THE RIGHT TO TRAVEL’

That cautious approach – shaped by her years as Maine’s attorney general, an assistant attorney general and a county prosecutor – hasn’t always sat well with some residents.

For instance, Mills has not gone as far as some of her counterparts in dissuading out-of-state visitors, despite vocal concerns in coastal and tourist towns about a perceived uptick in arrivals from New York, Massachusetts and other harder-hit states.

In Rhode Island, for instance, state troopers and National Guard members not only set up checkpoints along border roads to question travelers but also actually knocked on doors of homes with out-of-state cars parked outside. Occupants were advised to self-quarantine for 14 days.

In Texas, travelers from Louisiana could be stopped and required to fill out paperwork advising them of a mandatory, 14-day quarantine. Although drivers can’t be turned around, failing to observe the quarantine could result in fines or jail time.

Legal experts have warned that blocking interstate travel is unconstitutional – at least for governors – and likely to be challenged in court.

For her part, Mills has said she “cannot simply close the state’s border or pull up the Maine-New Hampshire bridge, as some people have suggested,” but she has urged out-of-state travelers to stay where they are. You can’t escape the virus by coming to Maine, she insists, because it is already here.

“My role as attorney general and as an attorney is one deeply embedded in the Constitution,” Mills said. “That means respecting the right to travel, the right to vote, and the right to liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And those are very difficult things to balance in the midst of this crisis.”

Mills was criticized by some gun owners and Republicans – including immediate predecessor Gov. Paul LePage – for not including gun stores among “essential” businesses in her closure of public-facing, nonessential businesses. But the Mills administration reversed course a week later after the Trump administration updated its own list of essential businesses in response to demands from gun groups.

Rep. Kathleen Dillingham, an Oxford Republican who serves as minority leader in the Maine House of Representatives, was among those who had called on Mills to add gun and sporting good stores to the list of essential businesses. Several days later, Dillingham noted in a radio address that Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature had come together with the Mills administration last month to quickly pass a package of emergency measures to deal with the coronavirus.

Dillingham said now is not the time for partisan politics and that “we are all in this together.”

“The people of Maine are looking to all of us for calm guidance right now and our characters will be judged,” Dillingham said “Let us all come through this knowing we did our best to serve and work together, political party aside, to stop the spread of this virus and preserve our economy as best as we can. It’s not always about winning the next election, it’s about serving the people around us.”

BEHIND THE SCENES

Mills has also adopted a lower profile amid the crisis than many of her counterparts.

While Govs. Andrew Cuomo of New York, Larry Hogan of Maryland and Gavin Newsom of California have gained national attention for their regular coronavirus briefings, Mills has largely left that task to Dr. Nirav Shah, the head of Maine’s CDC.

Reassuring, authoritative and deeply scientific yet still understandable, Shah has developed a large following himself among Mainers who tune in to his daily briefings to hear him provide updates and politely field reporters’ questions.

Mills has joined Shah on several occasions, most often to announce major new initiatives. But she has allowed the epidemiologist to essentially become the public face of Maine’s coronavirus response with what she glowingly calls “his gentlemanly fashion.”

Behind the scenes, Mills has holed herself up with just a handful of staffers or Cabinet members – typically no more than five or six people occupying the cavernous second floor of the State House on any given day – to work on coronavirus issues.

She also participates in regular teleconferences with Vice President Mike Pence, who is leading the Trump administration’s coronavirus task force, as well as other discussions through the National Governors Association.

The NGA, as it is known, has served a central role in advising governors on everything from instituting effective social distancing strategies to essential business designations. Mills noted that rejoining the NGA was one of her first actions as governor, reversing the stance of her predecessor, LePage, who withdrew Maine’s membership from the nonpartisan group but regularly participated in Republican Governors Association events.

“We get to provide information to each other, which is absolutely invaluable,” Mills said. “A number of these governors I knew when I was attorney general. … There really aren’t many party lines drawn in responding to a crisis.”

THE POWER OF THE STATES

Meryl Chertoff, executive director of Georgetown University Law Center’s Project on State and Local Government Policy and Law, noted that the COVID-19 pandemic is reviving federalist concepts “as old as the nation itself.”

In the 10th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, the Founding Fathers specifically gave states the power to respond to public health emergencies.

“The federal government is supposed to coordinate. The governors are the lead,” Chertoff said during a recent panel discussion on governors’ constitutional powers when responding to COVID-19. “That is under the Constitution. Police and public safety powers are state functions going back to our founding. Most state constitutions explicitly speak about quarantine power.”

U.S. Sen. Angus King, a former two-term governor of Maine, said that Mills and other governors have “stepped up” at a time when he’s been disappointed in President Trump’s management of resources – such as personal protective equipment – and been inconsistent on his message.

King, who activated the National Guard twice during his term after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the massive 1998 ice storm, described Mills as “calm, consistent, confident and competent – and I think it’s made a difference.”

“She was the right person at the right time,” King said. “She has a sort of calm demeanor anyway. She is very competent in the sense of having good people and empowering people to do their jobs.”

Like King and her other predecessors, including Republican Gov. John McKernan and Democratic Gov. John Baldacci, Mills will almost surely face the challenge of digging Maine out from an economic hole and potentially a recession even after the virus threat dissipates.

A record 31,000 Mainers filed for unemployment benefits last week. That figure is all but guaranteed to grow as businesses struggle to survive amid a stay-at-home order slated to last until at least April 30, if not longer.

The pandemic and its profound economic impacts could extend through Maine’s critical summer tourism season, and Mills is concerned yet somehow also optimistic.

“We’re going to deal with it one day at a time and one week at a time,” she said. “We are going to develop new paradigms and new ways to do business. But ultimately, I think more people are going to want to come to Maine and more people are going to want to live here.”

SHE’S STAYING HOME

Still, the coronavirus pandemic is – underneath all of the numbers, testing statistics and supply chain logistics – a crisis of humanity that is bound to take an enormous emotional and economic toll on residents of Maine and every state.

Mills has acknowledged those burdens repeatedly in her public statements, even as she urges Mainers to be vigilant about social distancing.

“We stay apart now so that, sooner rather than later, we can all be together,” Mills said.

And even governors can’t escape the personal effects of such a crisis.

Recently, she was unable to visit her brother David when he was ill because of fears about spreading the virus. Working long days despite the lack of public events, Mills complies with her own advice to get outside by walking the large grounds of the Blaine House.

On weekends, she tries to return to her hometown of Farmington and go for walks. She even played the spoons in a “community concert” organized in her neighborhood, joining others playing music together even as they safely spaced apart.

An avid angler, Mills keeps her fishing rod in her car but noted that one of her go-to lakes near Farmington was still frozen as of last week.

“I haven’t been out in public,” Mills replied with a laugh when asked whether she is following U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations on wearing a mask. “I am a politician and I haven’t been shaking hands in a month. It’s not easy.”

Mostly, however, the governor is trying to abide by her own orders.

“I’m staying home,” she said.

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