Maine saw a pair of demonstrations last week, as protesters gathered outside a Bethel restaurant on Friday and the State House on Saturday in defiance of state public health emergency orders.

But what did these demonstrators demonstrate?

Friday’s event was in support of Rick Savage, co-owner of Sunday River Brewing, who went on national television last week to announce that he was going to open his restaurant in defiance of a state order banning in-person dining until June 1. Savage said that business people like him should be given the chance to show that that they can operate their businesses safely. Taking the opportunity for himself, what did Savage show?

He attracted a crowd of 150 people or more lined up outside his restaurant, making little attempt to maintain safe distances between strangers who had come from all over the state. When people got inside, he served them meals at tightly packed tables, exposing the diners and his staff to possible infection. Meanwhile, Savage showboated around, shaking hands and accepting cheers from his liberty-loving clientele.

The man who said he deserved a chance to operate safely couldn’t have operated less safely, and as a result he temporarily lost his health permits and announced that he would stay closed after all.

On Saturday, hundreds of protesters gathered outside the State House, honking horns and waving signs with slogans that included “Mills 4 Prison,” “There is a war: Truth vs. Deception” and “Freedom Trumps commie virus.”

The demonstrators took legitimate concerns about the hard economic shock Maine is experiencing as a result of the global pandemic and turned them into opportunistic political and personal attacks on Gov. Mills, who, they claim, intentionally inflicted economic suffering on her state for no particular reason. Speakers at the rally irresponsibly discounted the threat of the novel coronavirus, which has already taken more than 60,000 American lives in less than three months, and suggested that rural Maine is somehow immune because it hasn’t been struck by the disease in large numbers yet.

We understand why people are anxious. More than 100,000 Mainers have already applied for unemployment, and thousands more see their livelihoods in jeopardy. The prospect of a summer without out-of-state tourists could be the end of hundreds of small and medium-size businesses that factored in millions of visitors as their potential customers. The state’s plan, as rolled out last week, leaves some questions about what businesses can open, when they can open and under what circumstances.

But at least it is a plan. All the demonstrators offer is chaos. They talk about freedom, but they don’t show that they understand it has to come with responsibility. You have no more freedom to ignore public health regulations during an epidemic than you have the freedom to drive drunk.

It’s too soon to abandon the measures that have prevented a much more dangerous COVID-19 outbreak and that are still protecting us now. Rolling back the regulations safely will require caution and leadership – two qualities missing from last week’s events.


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