Progress against COVID-19 is put at risk with rush to return

Re-opening businesses while COVID-19 is still circulating is not as simple as turning on a switch or sending an email to employees asking them to show up for work.

For much of the state, schools have already been closed for the remainder of the academic year. Many parents will have no option but to stay home or modify their schedules to ensure that their kids have proper supervision.

Gov. Janet Mills could lift her stay-at-home order tomorrow (a bad idea, by the way), but it would not change that circumstance for thousands of Maine families.

Businesses, too, will face unprecedented challenges when it comes to bringing the workforce back.

Shirlanne Nevells of Ellsworth joins hundreds of protesters who lined the streets around the State House and Blaine House on Monday to rally for the reopening of businesses in Maine. Linda Coan O’Kresik | BDN

Centers for Disease Control guidelines recommend flexible sick leave policies and strong encouragement that any worker who shows coronavirus symptoms stay at home. Likewise, people who are a high risk of infection and serious complications would be encouraged to stay home. For Maine, the oldest state in the nation, how much of our workforce could be considered high risk?

Then there’s the nearly impossible task of keeping workers, customers and clients safe if we open up before the virus is under control.

Last week, The Washington Post reported that thousands of complaints have been filed with the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration saying that employers were failing to follow U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for keeping employees safe.

The complaints catalog health care workers without personal protective equipment, delivery drivers forced to purchase their own cleaning products to disinfect their vehicles to bathrooms without soap or hand sanitizer. The lawsuits are already beginning.

We’ve seen large meat processing plants become hotspots and hundreds of employees have become ill at these businesses, forcing them to close despite their designation as essential.

Once a business documents a case of COVID-19 in the work place, in some cases they would need to provide information to OSHA or conduct other administrative tasks, and then take additional steps to try to make their workplace safe again – actions that are both costly and could force additional closures.

The US CDC, for example, recommends that if a case is traced to a business, then the business should:

  • Close off areas visited by the ill person.
  • Open outside doors and windows and use ventilating fans to increase air circulation in the area.
  • Wait 24 hours or as long as practical before cleaning and disinfection.
  • Cleaning staff should clean and disinfect all areas, such as offices, bathrooms, common areas and shared electronic equipment used by the ill person.

Businesses could be forced to wash, rinse, wash, rinse and repeat as often as you are washing your hands if they have repeated contact with people who are ill.

Now imagine a restaurant, bar or other place of business. Perhaps you’re ready to open and put people back to work – I want you to be able to open and put people back to work, too.

How many cases do you think it would take being linked to a place of public accommodation before business dries up? One? Two? Even the hint that someone working there or who visited might be sick?

The protestors in Augusta on Patriots’ Day may not be afraid of COVID-19, and well-respected political leaders might be willing to risk re-opening businesses sooner rather than later.

But people – including a whole lot of business owners – are rightfully much more concerned about opening too soon, rather than waiting too long.

In an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released April 19, nearly 60% of respondents said they are more concerned about moving too fast when it comes to relaxing stay-at-home restrictions.

To date, Maine has been spared some of the worst of the impacts of COVID-19. As of Tuesday morning, our state had documented 888 confirmed cases and, sadly, 36 deaths. The numbers of new cases have begun to flatten and, so far, our health care system has been able to manage, though at a heavy toll. Roughly 20 percent of documented COVID-19 cases are among health care workers.

The good work that’s been done in fighting COVID-19 – the sacrifices made by families, businesses, health care workers and first responders – have saved lives.

If we move too fast – if we don’t follow science – those sacrifices can be quickly undone.

The economy will not “re-open” until people feel safe, and we can better guarantee their safety. That means more testing capabilities, more personal protective equipment for health care workers and first responders, and a better understanding of the disease.

We are just not there yet.

David Farmer

About David Farmer

David Farmer is a political and media consultant in Portland, where he lives with his wife and two children. He was senior adviser to Democrat Mike Michaud’s campaign for governor and a longtime journalist. You can reach him at