Two months ago, demonstrators crowded outside the Blaine House, honking horns and waving signs, trying to convince Gov. Mills to speed up the state’s plans to reopen the economy.

Good thing she didn’t listen.

Two months later, Maine has gradually lifted many of the emergency restrictions on businesses, opening barbershops and hair salons, retail stores and dine-in restaurants – as long as they meet new public health guidelines. But even with these changes, the number of new COVID-19 cases in the state is on a downward trend, and so is the number of Maine residents who are hospitalized with a coronavirus infection.

Maine’s experience stands in stark contrast with the national picture, in which the number of new cases is exploding, driven by states that followed policies that would have pleased the crowd in Augusta back in May.

Florida was one of the first states to reopen its businesses, and it is dealing with a tenfold increase in average daily coronavirus cases. Public health officials identify crowded bars, restaurants and house parties as the source of the spread, and the state has backtracked on its reopening plan, ordering bars to stop serving alcohol on site.

Texas was also an early opener, and also has seen an explosion of new cases starting in early June, shortly after large Memorial Day gatherings. The seven-day average for new cases went from about 1,000 in late May to near 9,000 last week. As the capacity of the state’s hospitals has become strained, Gov. Greg Abbott has closed bars and instituted new public health guidelines, including a statewide facial covering mandate.

Maine was able to slow the spread of the infection during its lockdown, and used the time to expand its ability to test for COVID. As the number of tests administered increased, the rate of people who test positive has fallen to less than 1 percent, a key marker that shows you are testing enough people to show a true picture of the rate of infection. Arizona, which is the latest coronavirus hot spot, has a positivity rate of nearly 25 percent, indicating that the outbreak is spreading undetected.

Collectively, the United States is diagnosing 60,000 new cases a day, while the death toll has been climbing toward 1,000 a day.

Maine is very fortunate that the careful public health measures were taken early in the crisis and not lifted too early, which has put us in a relatively safe place. It has come with a terrible economic cost, with Great Depression-level unemployment. But the states that opened too quickly are also experiencing economic consequences on top of a public health catastrophe. Our economy would not be in better shape if our hospitals were rationing ICU beds and ventilators.

But before we get overconfident, Mainers only need look at California. It was the first to impose a statewide stay-at-home order, and gradually opened its businesses using sound public health standards. But after months of lockdown, too many Californians decided not to listen to the doctors’ advice. There was an explosion of new cases in June, and just like Florida and Texas, most of the people infected were young people who were tired of social distancing and were going to parties and bars as if there were no pandemic. The state is breaking records for new cases and deaths.

COVID did not miss Maine. Nearly 3,500 people have been infected and 111 have died. Everyone’s life has been disrupted to some degree, and we are probably nearer the beginning than the end.

But it’s good to remember that it could have been worse, and as we can see from other states, it could still be much worse if we stop being vigilant.

It’s frustrating at times, but we can’t speed the process up.

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