The Calais City Council is encouraging all business owners to reopen to customers whenever they see fit, essentially rejecting the Mills administration’s phased plan for lifting restrictions due to the coronavirus.

In a vote Thursday night, the majority of City Council members voted in support of a loosely worded motion that the council “does not have a problem if any private-sector business wants to open up in this community and earn a living to support their family.”

Many businesses in the Washington County city – including retail stores and restaurants – were either allowed to open last Monday or can open next Monday under Gov. Janet Mills’ “rural reopening plan” in 12 of Maine’s 16 counties. Hotels, bars, campgrounds, nail salons and some other businesses are slated to remain closed statewide until at least June 1, however.

“We need to make sure that the rest of the state knows that we are open for business … because if it does not happen soon, we’re not going to have anything left,” Councilor Michael Sherrard can be heard saying in a video recording of the council meeting. “That is worse than the disease itself.”

It was unclear late Friday what effect, if any, the council’s vote would have on businesses in the city on the Maine-New Brunswick border or how the Mills administration would respond to it. Mills has previously said that businesses that violate state orders or fail to protect the public could potentially lose their licenses.

Spokespersons for Mills did not respond to a late-Friday request for comment.


Washington County has only had two confirmed cases of the COVID-19 disease caused by the coronavirus – out of 1,603 statewide – and has not reported any deaths. But state health officials warn that those official statistics do not show the true extent of the virus in Maine because many people with symptoms have not been tested, and because many infected people show no symptoms.

Sherrard cited Washington County’s low figures as justification for his motion while also pointing out that health care facilities around the state have not been overwhelmed by the disease.

“We need to let our businesses run and make money and support their families,” he said. “And we need to get the Little League going, we need to get the rec department going, we need to get everything going and get back and use common sense. Let the parents decide whether or not they want their kids to participate. If they don’t, that’s fine. But the entire population cannot suffer like this because of something that is less lethal than the flu that we get every year.”

Public health experts warn that COVID-19 is considerable more dangerous than the flu – particularly to vulnerable populations – because there is no vaccine and people do not have immunity to the new virus.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that between 24,000 and 62,000 residents nationally have died from the flu during the 2019-2020 season. COVID-19, by comparison, has killed more than 87,000 U.S. residents in recent months, with the death toll expected to continue growing.

While Maine’s infection rate is among the lowest in the nation, several outbreaks at long-term care facilities have proven deadly. At the Tall Pines nursing home in Belfast, for instance, 13 of the 32 residents who tested positive for COVID-19 have died – a mortality rate of more than 40 percent. Maine has the nation’s oldest population, per capita.


But Sherrard said that “everybody has a personal responsibility to protect themselves” and that at-risk people should take whatever steps they need to keep themselves safe. Councilors also said business owners should follow state guidelines on public health.

Councilor Mark Carr pointed out that retail stores and restaurants are already open or will be allowed to open on Monday.

“We are falling within state guidelines,” Carr said. “We are just encouraging our businesses to open.”

The lone vote against the motion was from Councilor Marcia Rogers, who said “we have to be smart about how we open” and that the council has an obligation to protect the health of city employees.

“I don’t disagree with everything that was said but I do feel strongly that we have a responsibility to this community to keep people safe,” Rogers said.

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