LEWISTON — A resolution asking Gov. Janet Mills to reconsider including Androscoggin County among counties with the most stringent guidelines for reopening failed to gain enough votes Tuesday.

In a 5-2 vote, the majority pointed to recent numbers from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention that continue to show community transmission and a steady rise in new cases in the county.

The resolution, submitted by Councilor Lee Clement, asked Mills to reconsider including Lewiston and Androscoggin County “in the four-county group that remains subject to the strictest regulations” after businesses such as retail stores and restaurants were allowed to reopen in 12 of the state’s more rural counties last week.

“We ask that Gov. Mills consider making any quarantine a voluntary action that will neither force any business to remain closed or require any to be open,” the proposed resolution stated.

The proposal sparked a lengthy dialogue between councilors and members of the public who called in to the Zoom meeting, highlighting the predicament officials face between maintaining public health restrictions and supporting the local economy — a debate that is playing out across the country.

Many said reopening too soon could cause a spike in cases that could potentially do even greater economic harm.

Mayor Mark Cayer said that as a small business owner, he’s aware of the economic implications, but said, “We can’t ignore the fact that even if we were to reopen, many businesses will continue to struggle” until people feel safe.

Over the past 14 days, cases have more than doubled in Androscoggin County, he said, including the number of active cases.

“These numbers should concern us, and support the CDC conclusion that we’re seeing community spread here,” he said.

Lewiston resident Patricia Gagne, calling in to the meeting, said she supports Clement’s resolution, arguing that the restrictions are an “infringement on our constitutional protections,” and that those at-risk should stay home.

“We’ve got to trust people to do what they need to do for their own protection,” she said.

Former Mayor Kristen Cloutier, calling in to the meeting, said public health decisions should not be made lightly or “in response to a loud minority.”

She said many health care workers and other essential workers don’t have the ability to simply “stay home,” meaning they are put more at risk by those not heeding the guidance of health officials.

Clement argued Tuesday that the coronavirus does not stop at town lines, and that outside Lewiston there are much more rural towns included in the county that could reopen safely.

Councilor Luke Jensen said he shared many of the same frustrations expressed by Clement with how the state has handled communication, including not providing a citywide breakdown of cases instead of the “archaic” county system.

But, he said, “Why should the governor reconsider? What are we presenting that she doesn’t know? Political resolutions aren’t going to change the facts on the ground. I really want to put trust in the doctors and health care workers at this point.”

Councilor Zack Pettengill, who voted in favor, said he supported the resolution due to what he described as a lack of data coming from the state.

“I feel people would be more apt to shelter in place if they had a better idea of what was happening,” he said. “If we’re not transparent, we’re allowing other people to fill that space with possible misinformation.”

Councilor Stephanie Gelinas, who has worked as a health care provider for decades, said she had to lay off several employees due to the crisis. Despite the economic implications of COVID-19, she said, “humanity is still more important.”

“I don’t for one minute blame Gov. Mills for what happened to my business,” she said. “This is real.”

Gelinas said Tuesday that her mother-in-law is a resident at Clover Health Care in Auburn, which has been dealing with an outbreak. Late Tuesday, tests revealed that 17 employees and four residents have tested positive so far.

“Maybe some of us haven’t been impacted as much as others,” she said.

Earlier in the meeting, the City Council voted unanimously on a measure that will allow businesses to use public rights-of-way like sidewalks or city land to conduct outdoor business like dining or even exercise classes.

The city would require permits for the uses but would waive the associated fees, City Administrator Ed Barrett said.


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