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Maine’s COVID-19 Response Impacts Utility Services and Other Business Activities

Like many states, Maine is quickly imposing a wide range of measures designed to protect the public in response to the spread of the coronavirus, COVID-19. Almost daily, Maine Governor Janet Mills and other state agencies have announced new measures.

On Sunday, March 15, Governor Mills issued a Proclamation of State of Civil Emergency to allow for the imposition of emergency measures to protect Maine people, including:

  • Ending classroom instruction in all public schools as soon as reasonably practical;
  • Postponing all non-urgent medical procedures, elective surgeries, and appointments at hospitals and health care providers across the state until further notice;
  • Restricting visitors and all non-essential health care personnel at long-term care facilities, until further notice; except for certain compassionate care situations such as end of life;
  • Postponing all events with 50 or more people and all gatherings of more than 10 people that include individuals who are at higher risk for severe illness, such as seniors, until further notice.

The next day, on March 16, the Maine Public Utilities Commission took steps to protect the public with regard to essential utility services. Specifically, the commission issued a moratorium on service disconnections by transmission and distribution, water, and natural gas utilities as well as telephone providers of last resort. The moratorium also prevents the issuance of disconnection notices and the actual disconnection of service to all classes of utility customers.

On March 17, the Maine Legislature passed emergency legislation related to COVID-19 and then adjourned “sine die” until called back later in the year when safe to do so. One of the key measures passed by the Legislature during this final day was Chapter 617, An Act To Implement Provisions Necessary to the Health, Welfare and Safety of the Citizens of Maine in Response to the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency. This emergency legislation included two provisions directly relevant to the operation of public utilities:

  • For consumer-owned utilities, such as water districts and municipal utility departments, the new law amends Maine’s open meeting law to allow the governing bodies of such utilities to meet remotely by video or telephone. See P.L. 2020, ch. 617, § G-1. This provision allows such bodies to conduct business while maintaining necessary “social distancing.”
  • With respect to water and electric utilities, the legislation authorizes the Governor, in consultation with the MPUC, to suspend the disconnection of residential water and electricity service. See P.L. 2020, ch. 617, § H-1.

On Wednesday, March 18, the Governor exercised her emergency powers to issue an Executive Order mandating that:

  • All restaurants and bars statewide must close to dine-in customers for a period of 14 days, until midnight, March 31. Take-out, delivery, and drive-through options can continue; and
  • All gatherings of more than 10 people were prohibited until further notice, consistent with the latest U.S. CDC’s guidance on gatherings.

In addition, Governor Mills “strongly urged” non-essential public-facing businesses, such as gyms, hair salons, theatres, casinos, and shopping malls, to close their doors for the next two weeks in order to minimize public gatherings.

As the response to COVID-19 proceeds, Maine anticipates the implementation of additional measures to protect public safety and help businesses and employees hurt by orders to suspend certain business activities. To keep the public informed of such actions, the Governor has set up a home page containing important information regarding COVID-19 and the State’s response. The Maine CDC has also set up a home page with key information about the coronavirus.