Life is a gamble, and we all decide what kind of risks we are willing to take on a daily basis.

I’d like to smoke cigarettes, but I don’t, for the obvious reason. Most smokers don’t get lung cancer, but enough do to make the risk unacceptable.

This is the kind of decision-making process that is going on at the state level right now over the lifting of the emergency shutdown of the state’s economy.

Because as much as Gov. Mills and the rest of her administration would say they are guided by science, the science gets you only so far. The choices she has made regarding the coronavirus response, the choices she is making now and the choices that will be made in the future are based more on probability than on any kind of scientific law.

In other words, on some of the really big stuff, she’s going to have to guess.

As the novel coronavirus started spreading around the country, Maine’s response was cautious. The first case here was reported on March 12. The first COVID-19 death was reported on March 27. Mills ordered all the state’s restaurants and bars closed on March 18, and issued a statewide stay-at-home order on March 31, making Maine one of the last states in New England to take that step.

The number of new cases continued to climb, from more than 300 cases on April 1, to nearly 800 on April 15, and more than 1,000 at the end of the month, accounting for more than 50 deaths. 

But as the number of cases increased, the strategy appeared to be working because the rate of increase slowed after social distancing measures were imposed. But as soon as the number of active cases started to decline, pressure started mounting on Mills to “reopen the economy.” It came not only from political cranks, but also from legitimately concerned people watching their own small business or the one that employs them be consumed by what looks to them like an excess of caution over a virus that has killed fewer people than a bad bout of the seasonal flu.

But on the other hand, there is plenty of evidence that the coronavirus danger has not passed.

We have far more known COVID cases than we had before Mills issued her shutdown order. Why would we be less worried about the disease spreading now than we were then?

Even if we have reached the peak of the epidemic – and we won’t know where the peak was until the whole thing is over – that just means we are halfway through it, not near the end.

The social distancing rules and the level of cooperation with them by the public has slowed the rate of infection and avoided the worst-case scenario of an overwhelmed health care system, for now. But no one really knows what would have happened if those rules had never been in place, or if most people had ignored them. And nobody knows whether we could still see that worst-case scenario after all.

Two outbreaks reported last week should chill any notion that the crisis is over. Hope House, a homeless shelter in Bangor, reported 20 positive COVID tests and Tyson Foods reported eight positive tests at its Portland plant. On top of the string of nursing home outbreaks last month, these latest cases show how quickly this virus can spread in communities where social distancing is not practiced.

Is it time to relax the rules for everyone? Here’s where the gambling comes in.

Mills has two things to consider: rules that will keep people safe and rules that most people will be willing to follow. 

The second question is as important as the first, since most of these rules are not enforceable. You could put up a 25 mph speed limit on the Maine Turnpike, but if everyone keeps driving 75, it won’t really matter.

Mills has outlined a roadmap for reopening the economy that tries to strike a balance – taking on more risk by opening some categories of businesses while hoping that it doesn’t result in a new spate of sickness and death.

This is not purely a medical question or purely an economic one.

It’s a question about risk and how much uncertainty we are willing to live with. It’s a gamble, and the stakes have never been higher.

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