Even as time and days blur together during the COVID-19 pandemic, public opinion can still move quickly.
Or maybe not.
So far, there have been two large protests in Augusta concerning the gradual changes to physical distancing regulations implemented by Gov. Janet Mills to protect public health during the pandemic.
If you spend anytime on social media, particularly Twitter – God help you – then you might be asking: How did public opinion change so quickly?
Despite crowds chanting to open Maine back up, to “save summer” and to allow tourists to come into Maine, it was barely a month ago that the headlines were decidedly different.
“Report: Men with guns cut down tree, block driveway to quarantine Vinalhaven residents.” According to the March 28 story, which made its way around the world, the “Knox County Sheriff’s office is investigating a report that several people with guns cut down a tree and used it to block a driveway Friday afternoon on Vinalhaven in an alleged attempt to quarantine the people who live in the residence.”
For days and days, Dr. Nirav Shah, the stalwart head of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and Mills had to answer questions about people coming into the state from away.
Could we block the bridges from New Hampshire? Are the state troopers stopping cars with out of state plates? How can we force people “from away” to quarantine or just stay away?
How did we go from vigilante quarantine enforcement to mobs demanding that we let people from other states back into our communities – and particularly rural communities?
The truth is, the report of town folk taking matters into their own hands to force visitors from away to stay locked down was an outlier.
And despite the wall-to-wall media coverage of the protesters demanding the state rush a return to normal, they’re also a small minority of people.
A Washington Post-University of Maryland poll released Tuesday shows that Americans oppose reopening restaurants, retails stores and other businesses, despite the fact that governors are beginning to lift restrictions.
Respondents told the pollsters that they are worried about becoming sick with COVID-19 and that they don’t believe that the worst of the crisis is behind us. Sixty-seven percent, the Post reported, said they would be uncomfortable shopping at a retail clothing store and 78 percent said they would be uncomfortable eating at a sit-down restaurant.
An overwhelming majority of the respondents also give governors high marks for the handling of the crisis.
A survey of Maine residents in late April had similar results.
Most people recognize that the crisis is far from over.
And they’re right.
As the New York Times reported Tuesday, new coronavirus cases are growing between 2 percent and 4 percent nationally every day. While we’ve seen big improvements in localized containment in places such as New York City – and Maine – the numbers for the country are getting worse.
Meanwhile, an internal document from the Trump administration obtained by the Times suggests the country could face about 200,000 new cases each day by the end of May, up from about 30,000 cases a day now. About 1,700 people are dying a day with COVID-19 in the US; under this model that number could jump to more than 3,000.
So far, more than 68,000 Americans have died with COVID-19. Those numbers are likely to get dramatically worse.
The strain that COVID-19 is placing on families, businesses and towns is real. People are hurting without work, they are struggling to plan for an uncertain future and to save jobs and services that people rely upon.
The safety precautions that are necessary to try to keep a workplace or business safe are going to make any return far from normal.
There may be a vision that if we just open back up, things will be the way they were. That’s not likely.
Restaurants and businesses may need to check the temperature of employees and customers before they can enter the building. Desks will be moved apart. Distance between people will be the norm. Anxiety will be higher.
And, frankly, I don’t think many communities in Maine are ready for parking lots full of cars with license plates from Massachusetts, Connecticut, Pennsylvania or New Jersey.
Over the weekend, we had nice, sunny weather in Portland. My family and I went for a drive. We had our masks with us, even though we had no intention of getting out of the car.
Most people – almost everyone I saw, in fact – who were out and about were wearing masks. They were maintaining social distancing. They were doing their part to help slow the spread of COVID-19. They were going about their business as well as they could, making the best out of a terrible situation.
They are the majority. They aren’t protesting. They aren’t threatening people from away. They’re just trying to do their part to keep our state safe.