What might be called the shock-and-calm of the initial stages of coronavirus awareness is eroding. After six weeks of startlingly good behavior around the nation – as citizens became united in their realization that, without drastic measures, they or their friends and family could be infected – things started heading south.

Some of this can be blamed on the Tweeter-in-Chief, with his conflicting statements and encouragement of conspiracy theories, but the president isn’t really in charge – it’s the nation’s governors, given emergency powers in nearly all 50 states.

But Republican governors are now starting to bend. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds was among those allowing widespread reopenings, saying, “It’s not sustainable for us to continue to lock the state down.”

Unfortunately, Iowa then reported 19 deaths in a single day, and 730 workers at a Tyson Foods plant in Waterloo tested positive – one of the nation’s largest outbreaks. In Maine, Tyson Foods’ Portland plant has 37 positive tests.

Gov. Janet Mills has stood firm against widespread reopening, but the Maine Policy Center (formerly Heritage Policy) insists this is all wrong. Their plan is, in essence, to allow any business to reopen if it follows “CDC Guidelines,” which are, of course, recommendations, and not easy to interpret.

Leaving these decisions up to individual business owners could represent a public health threat in itself. Witness Rick Savage of Sunday River Brewing in Bethel.

Savage has now twice reopened his restaurant, in defiance of state law. Already a Fox News star for his advocacy of “freedom,” Savage told a reporter that gradual, phased reopenings are unacceptable: “It’s frustrating, and people are not going to put up with it.”

In contradiction to these “freedom” arguments, it’s not just a matter of individual choice. Coronavirus is sometimes carried by asymptomatic people who don’t know they have a potentially fatal illness, who then spread it to others, often far more vulnerable.

Donald Trump may tweet that “We need a million more Rick Savages,” but it’s doubtful many Mainers agree.

Pitting public health against “economic sustainability” doesn’t answer the important questions before us. To put it bluntly, when it comes to saving lives vs. saving money, we must first save lives.

Resistance to Mills’s orders, however, has spread beyond a few malcontents. Senate and House Republicans issued a letter calling for a special legislative session to repeal the powers granted the governor before lawmakers adjourned on March 17.

Senate President Troy Jackson spoke with Republican Leader Dana Dow before the letter was made public, and asked what plans Republicans had for modifying the orders; they had none. “I’m not going to support calling the Legislature back just to repeal the orders and leave again,” he said. “We’d have no way to accept federal funds, or get PPE supplies. It would be chaos.”

Reading between the lines of the Republicans’ letter, it’s not Mills’s actions, but her approach that rankles. There’s no “regular in-depth communication from the governor,” it says, despite being granted “an extraordinary amount of power and authority.”

They have a point. When the administration’s online legislative briefings ran afoul of state right-to-know laws, Mills responded not by allowing public access, but canceling further briefings; Wednesday’s Labor Committee hearing was the first public proceeding since lawmakers adjourned.

And while Mills has also announced a long-range planning effort to guide policy after the pandemic, there’s no day-to-day consultation with lawmakers, or any kind of advisory group beyond her own office.

New Hampshire lawmakers have already held two weeks of hearings on how the state should spend the $1.25 billion in federal funding granted under the $2.2 trillion CARES Act. There’s been no word from the Mills administration about what Maine plans to do when it receives the same amount.

Through private briefings, Troy Jackson learned it isn’t clear if the state can fill revenue shortfalls created by the huge cutbacks in economic activity, from sales to fuel taxes. So it’s even more important that public discussion begin.

Boiled down, the Republican letter says “Talk to us,” a sentiment with which many Democrats agree.

Amid the pain, suffering and death that still lie ahead, the primary asset we have is, indeed, that “We’re all in this together.”

That belief can only be nourished by frequent communication of accurate information, and providing explanations and perspective on necessary restrictions. Yet when Gov. Mills left the Maine CDC briefing last Friday, she did so without taking questions, commenting that she had to get back to work.

Her work as governor involves more. It requires patience with critics, outreach to the public, and trust in the other leaders of this state – all of them.

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]

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