An Aroostook County lawmaker is organizing a march outside the governor’s mansion in Augusta on Patriots’ Day to protest restrictions Gov. Janet Mills has ordered to slow the spread of coronavirus.

Rep. Chris Johansen Photo from Maine Legislature

Rep. Chris Johansen, R-Monticello, said Friday that he wants Mills to ease some of the restrictions she placed on businesses deemed non-essential that have been forced to close.

Johansen said as many as 200 people have said they want to join him in a march down the sidewalk between the Blaine House and the State House. He said a caravan of vehicles led by former state Rep. Heather Sirocki, a Scarborough Republican, would circle on nearby streets as part of the protest.

Johansen acknowledged Friday that he believes the virus poses a public health threat, but he thinks the risks are lower in rural counties than in more densely populated counties like Cumberland and York, where most of the confirmed cases are. He said some of the restrictions Mills imposed in her executive orders should be relaxed in rural areas.

“When it first happened, it was probably reasonable but we need to adjust it now,” Johansen said. “More than half the state of Maine has no cases.”

He pointed to small rural hospitals, some of which have had to lay off employees because they are not providing non-emergency services. They’ve done so to make room for an anticipated wave of COVID-19 victims, but they haven’t materialized in his House District 145, along the New Brunswick border.

Mills has said at daily news briefings that she is aware that the outbreak, and the restrictions adopted to reduce its spread, are hurting Maine businesses. But her office did not respond directly to questions about the protest on Friday.

“The Governor will be spending the day with her family,” spokeswoman Lindsay Crete said in a written statement.

Separately, Mills issued a news release Friday afternoon announcing that her administration is planning a phased-in reopening “tailored to the demographics and various economic sectors of our state.” She provided no details but said the plan would be made public soon.

Only two people have tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, in Aroostook County. A total of 827 Mainers have been infected by the virus and 29 have died, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention said Friday.

Health officials say residents of every county should take precautions, because the virus may be present, but not yet detected.

Johansen, a retired police officer and Vietnam veteran, said protesters will maintain social distancing using a rope marked at six-foot intervals. But he acknowledged that marchers will be taking a risk, and said he is concerned about his own health.

“I wouldn’t be doing it if it just wasn’t so important to these businesses,” Johansen said. “We’ve got to figure something out, we can’t have the same rules for places like Aroostook County that we do for Cumberland and York.”

Another group, calling itself ReOpen Maine and Mainers Against Excessive Quarantine, said in a news release Friday that it would bring “thousands” to the State House to protest on Monday as well.

Capitol Police Chief Russell Gauvin said he did not expect a large crowd, based on what he’s been told about the protest and gleaned from social media. He said he expects those coming will stay on public ways – the street and the sidewalk – and would not need a permit from his office to be on state property or from the Augusta Police Department.

His officers would not wield a heavy hand against the protesters, he said, and would instead would focus on education and leniency.

“We are going to cut them a lot of slack – we understand people want to have their voices heard and if they do it in a reasonable manner I don’t think there are going to a lot of problems,” he said.

Protests like the one planned for the Blaine House, mostly organized by conservative groups and supporters of President Trump, have been staged this week at statehouses around the country, including in Wisconsin, Michigan and Virginia.

 

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