The Gorham Town Council passed a resolution Tuesday that declares the town open for business despite state regulations that continue to close or restrict many businesses during the coronavirus pandemic.

The resolution declares all Gorham businesses are essential, but it does not supersede state regulations and state officials still have the power to revoke business licenses of those that don’t follow state orders, town officials warned.

“There really is no legal authority for the town of Gorham to authorize businesses to open that have been told not to open by the State of Maine for one reason or another,” Town Manager Ephrem Paraschak told town councilors during their virtual meeting Tuesday night.

Councilor Ben Hartwell, who proposed the resolution, said he hopes it sends a message to Gov. Janet Mills and that other towns follow Gorham with similar measures.

“I trust our local business owners to do the right thing for the community. This pushback needs to start somewhere,” he said. “It needs to start here and it needs to start now.”

The resolution had broad support from town councilors and local business owners who spoke during the meeting about two Gorham businesses that closed and the struggles of others to stay afloat until they can fully reopen. Town councilors also said Gorham could face difficult choices about cuts in services if more revenue is lost because businesses close.

Councilor Janet Kuech, who cast the only vote against the resolution, said she supports local businesses, but also supports following science and the governor’s gradual reopening plan.

“I can’t with a straight face say that because half of the people (who have died) live in nursing homes we should open up Gorham,” Kuech said, referencing a statement by Hartwell questioning the cause of death of nursing home patients whom state officials say died of COVID-19.

Hartwell said he was inspired by a similar resolution in the city of Calais, whose council in mid-May voted to essentially reject Mills’ pandemic restrictions and allow all businesses to open.

While it does not legally allow businesses to circumvent the governor’s opening plan, Gorham’s resolution is a statement in support of opening all businesses, according to the town council. Hartwell said that while the town cannot overrule the governor’s order, “there is only so much enforcement the state has available and they rely on local enforcement.”

“This measure is to say we are only going to go so far in enforcing,” he said.

The state’s reopening plan is now in its second phase, which allowed retail stores to open for business June 1. It also allows restaurants in Cumberland, York and Androscoggin counties, where there has been community transmission of the virus, to open for outdoor dining. Those restaurants had been slated to open for indoor dining on June 1, but Mills last week pushed that back indefinitely because of a rise in cases and hospitalizations.

Though Maine saw flattening or decreasing hospitalizations through much of May, those figures rebounded over the past week in a resurgence seemingly unrelated to the recent increase in testing and gradual lifting of restrictions. On Wednesday, the Maine CDC reported there have been 95 deaths and 2,418 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Maine.

Mills also delayed the full reopening of gyms and fitness centers, though those businesses can offer one-on-one training and outdoor classes.

Public health officials have cautioned that sweeping restrictions on public gathering and economic activity are necessary because even healthy people who take reasonable precautions can catch the virus and pass it on. Somewhere along the chain, an at-risk person could contract COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and develop a life-threatening case.

Because the virus spreads exponentially – one person might pass it to three people, each of whom passes it to another three, for example – even a disease with low fatality rates such as COVID-19 can wreak havoc and overwhelm health systems if allowed to spread unchecked.

The owners of a restaurant, dance studio and fitness center urged town councilors to pass the resolution and described the devastating impacts the shutdown has had on their businesses. They say they are confident Gorham businesses can responsibly and safely open while preventing outbreaks.

Jesse Coleman, who owns My-Fit-24 with his wife, Stacey, said Wednesday he is grateful for the council’s demonstration of support for businesses in town, but he will not risk opening until the state allows gyms to do so because he fears retribution from the government.

“I’m facing complete financial ruin one way or the other,” he said. “If things continue on this route, we will go bankrupt. If we open too soon and our license is yanked, we will go bankrupt.”

Coleman, who has been offering online training and classes, said he believes he can safely open the 4,000-square-foot facility to members while following state guidelines.

Lisa Kaldrovich, who owns MK Kitchen with her husband, said takeout orders are decreasing and are not enough to sustain their downtown restaurant. They don’t have space for outdoor dining and had been preparing to reopen their dining room by setting up a sanitizing station, requiring employees to wear face masks or face shields, and installing a plastic shield at the bar.

“We’ve been ready to open. We deal with the flu season every year. We deal with salmonella. We’re trained to deal with a pandemic like this to be as safe as we can and assure the people coming in are going to be taken care of,” she told councilors.

Kaldrovich said Wednesday she doesn’t think she’ll “go rogue” and open for indoor dining before the state gives the green light, but she is frustrated by a lack of communication from the state about when that might be. She said the statement the town made with the resolution gives business owners a platform to go to the state with plans to reopen.

“I think Gorham passing this resolution gives the chance for other towns to do the same,” she said. “If enough of us come together, Gov. Mills will have to take some kind of action.”

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