Rick Savage

Rick Savage, a co-owner of Sunday River Brewing Co., was one of the plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit challenging Gov. Janet Mills’ restrictions on their businesses during the pandemic. Associated Press/Robert F. Bukaty

A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit by business owners who challenged the governor’s restrictions on their operations during the pandemic.

The lawsuit is one of multiple legal challenges to Gov. Janet Mills’ executive orders related to the coronavirus, and the latest to fail in court.

One of the plaintiffs was Rick Savage, co-owner of Sunday River Brewing Company in Bethel. Early in the pandemic, the Lewiston Sun Journal reported that Savage opened the brewpub in defiance of the governor’s orders, causing him to temporarily lose his state licenses.

U.S. District Judge Lance Walker on Friday sided with Mills and granted a motion to dismiss. He said the plaintiffs failed to state any claim that would entitle them to the relief they sought. They had asked the judge to declare the governor’s orders unconstitutional and lift the restrictions on their businesses.

“Many people, Plaintiffs among them, call into question the wisdom of any restrictions on commercial activity, which is a right almost universally accepted,” Walker wrote. “But these Plaintiffs have not alleged facts demonstrating a present violation of their constitutional rights that warrants injunctive relief; not while the Nation is scrambling to adapt to an unprecedented pandemic that is believed to have killed more than 150,000 Americans in four months and caused debilitating illness for many survivors.”

Walker said he must consider the case in light of the current restrictions, instead of those in place in the first weeks of the pandemic when the suit was filed. Mills has slowly eased the restrictions on businesses across the state since then.

“The Governor’s restrictions are burdensome, I recognize, and one does not have to look far to find a great number of our fellow Mainers who still are reeling from the effects of the temporary closures,” the judge wrote. “Indeed, the toll has been dear and we may continue to pay it for some time. But it’s August now, and the shuttering is past.”

A spokesman said the Attorney General’s Office is pleased with the judge’s findings.

“We will continue to vigorously defend the measures taken by the Mills Administration to protect Mainers’ health in the midst of this global pandemic,” Marc Malon wrote in an email.

Stephen Smith, one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs, also commented on the decision in a brief email. Asked about a possible appeal, he said they are reviewing their options.

“The Governor’s arbitrary rules have imposed great harm on our clients and this state that will be felt for years to come,” he wrote in an email.”The Legislature is equally to blame for abdicating its oversight role of the executive branch and allowing the Governor to issue laws at her whim.”

The owners of nine businesses filed the complaint in U.S. District Court of Bangor in May. The governor had just announced a tentative and phased plan for reopening businesses. Later that month, the plaintiffs amended their complaint, removing some plaintiffs and adding Savage.

The other remaining plaintiffs were Mike Mercer, a security consultant; James Fahey, a wedding disc jockey; and Lindsey Crosby, a hair salon owner.

“Plaintiffs want to reopen their businesses, but Governor Mills forbids them from doing so under pain of criminal punishment and civil fines,” their complaint said. “Plaintiffs should not be forced to choose between risking criminal prosecution and economic sanctions on the one hand, or exercising their constitutional rights on the other.”

Savage became a celebrity of sorts to people who disagreed with the rules Mills imposed. He could not be reached at the brewpub Friday evening.

His lawsuit was one of several that challenged the governor’s orders during the pandemic.

The owners of two campgrounds and two restaurants sued Mills over Maine’s 14-day quarantine for out-of-state visitors. Walker also denied a preliminary motion in that case.

An Orrington church also sued the governor over an earlier ban on gatherings of more than 10 people. Another judge denied a motion in that case.

In both of those cases, the plaintiffs have appealed to the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston, where the cases are still pending.

“Public health professionals and politicians have had to analyze data regarding this novel virus while executing public health policies, nearly simultaneously and continuously, for more than four months with no clear end in sight,” Walker wrote in his order on the business lawsuit. “This collective crisis ought to have imposed a sense of collective humility given the long shadow cast by all that we do not know about the disease. We might hope that Socratic wisdom is making a comeback.”

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