Monday was supposed to be the start of the “new normal” for restaurants throughout Maine, which were going to be allowed to open for at least limited dine-in service after being closed for nearly two months under emergency public health rules.

But – at least in the state’s three most populous counties – that grand reopening is going to have to wait.

On Wednesday, Gov. Mills announced that the spike in new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations would lead her to keep dining rooms closed in Androscoggin, Cumberland and York counties, where community spread of the disease is on the rise. Restaurants can open for outdoor dining, and she encouraged municipalities to work with local businesses to expand their options.

Naturally, this was disappointing news for restaurant owners and employees, who had been looking forward to a June 1 reopening, taking reservations and stocking up on perishable food and supplies.

But Mills’ revised order makes sense, and it is entirely consistent with science and with the economic reopening plan she outlined at the end of April.

At the same time she announced the dates that different businesses and social activities would be allowed to resume, she also said that the plan would respond to real world conditions. Innovations or the expansion of testing capacity could make it possible to move up deadlines. That’s what happened earlier this month when a partnership with Idexx Laboratories allowed the state to reopen in-person dining and retail ahead of schedule in rural parts of the state.

But at the same time, she also warned that a surge in COVID-19 cases could result in “significant adjustments” to the timetable. The virus does not respect the calendar, and the state should not stick to a plan if the conditions change.

And conditions are changing in southern Maine. After a few weeks of apparent flattening in the numbers of new cases and COVID hospitalizations, numbers have been climbing just as restrictions were scheduled to relax.

There have been infections found inside nursing homes, a state prison and possibly the command center of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, institutions that are not easily accessed by the general public. As Mills pointed out in her news conference Wednesday, “the virus did not grow in the plants” inside – it was brought in by outsiders who picked it up in their communities.

Much is still unknown about the coronavirus and how it spreads, but observation both in other countries and in the United States indicates the most likely pathway is from person to person when they are in close contact. Transmission appears to be more common inside than outside, and the length of time people are in contact appears to make a difference, too.

This is why restaurants were among the first businesses to be closed and makes their reopening complicated. For reasons of atmosphere and revenue, diners are often seated closely together at tables closer than the recommended 6 feet apart. And they tend to stay in those seats for long periods, unlike a retail store, where customers step in and out.

When there are new COVID cases in the community, there is nothing arbitrary about slowing down the reopening schedule for businesses that pose a specific risk of spreading the virus. In the long run, businesses will be better off if their customers have the confidence that the state is taking public health seriously.

In a sense, Monday will be the start of the new normal – a normal that looks different from the normal of the past.

Until there is a vaccine and widespread immunity, everyone should be prepared for disruption, whether it comes in the form of temporarily closing an individual business when an infection is detected or putting in place wider restrictions that affect activity regionally or even statewide.

Implementing risky public health policy won’t bring the economy back.

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