CARIBOU, Maine — The Caribou City Council discussed writing a letter to Gov. Janet Mills asking that city officials have more jurisdiction in terms of reopening its facilities.
Mayor Mark Goughan had the item placed on the agenda for open discussion “before anybody jumps to conclusions of what we’re trying to do,” he said.
Goughan understands that the topic is controversial and would only be comfortable moving forward with a letter if an overwhelming majority of councilors were in agreement, he said. However, with councilors Jody Smith and Nicole Cote both excused from the June 15, the item was ultimately tabled until the next meeting.
“This is where we get to bring ideas to the table and discuss them in an open forum, so people can hear what we’re discussing,” he said.
Goughan added that, in his opinion, it is important to get the country back up and running, adding that it is also important to look at the number of cases in the local area in addition to the economy when it comes to making this decision.
The mayor said the decision of whether or not a business should remain closed or reopened is one that should be between the business and its insurance agent or the business and its clientele.
Councilors Hugh Kirkpatrick and Doug Morrell both agreed with sending the letter, with Morrell adding that this is something that should have been done at least a month ago.
Councilor Joan Theriault said Gov. Mills may make a decision related to reopening businesses in rural counties by July 1, when phase three of the statewide reopening plan is set to begin. Theriault cited that Mills accelerated the reopening of bars and tasting rooms for outside services as well as tattoo and piercing parlors earlier this month in all counties except York, Cumberland, and Androscoggin under the administration’s rural reopening plan, a couple weeks in advance of phase three when they were originally scheduled.
Councilor Thomas Ayer supported sending a letter to the governor, and said he would also support Caribou opening for business in advance of restrictions being lifted, citing the Calais City Council’s recent decision to open its businesses in defiance of the governor’s restrictions.
“We can do this and we can say that this has really affected our economy and way of life,” he said. “It’s not like any one of us wants somebody to get COVID-19 because that could not be further from the truth. What I’m saying is that we need to open this economy back up. I was one of the hardest hit by COVID-19 on my farm.”
He said that while he respects the governor and the governor’s office, it does not mean he has to agree with her. Based on the current case numbers in Aroostook County, which as of June 18 has one active case, nine recoveries, and one death, Ayer said people in the area have proven that they are capable of social distancing.
“I don’t know how much more social distancing you can get in northern Maine,” he said. “So I support either one — making the letter or just saying open up.”
Mayor Mark Goughan sympathized with the governors across the country who were tasked to handle this virus back in February.
“I really thank the governor for the steps she took, and the whole concept of flattening the curve, and what the hospitals did,” he said. “It was all done with the best intentions and I was very supportive of everything. I know I wash my hands a lot more now than I ever have in the past.”
Both Ayer and the mayor mentioned that state laws would trump local laws if the city decided to open all businesses regardless of the governor’s orders. Goughan asked City Manager Dennis Marker if Calais was even allowed to just declare that they were open without state approval.
“As was mentioned, the state laws trump you at the local level,” Marker said. “So for them to do that, it still has potential repercussions.”
Councilor Theirault said she completely supports writing a letter, but that she does not support opening without the governor’s position as it could “open up the whole city to any kind of liability.”
“At this point it’s more about making a statement,” Ayer said. “I’m sure the people of Calais know the same thing we know. State law trumps local, but I think it’s all about saying that we’re here, this is what we need to do, and as local politicians this is what we’re hearing and seeing, and people are struggling. We need help and we’re not getting it.”
Before the item was tabled to the next meeting, the mayor reiterated the importance of sending a letter to the governor.
“If you’re the governor, you probably have a group of people in one ear saying open up and people in the other ear saying no, keep it closed,” he said. “This letter would just be a way for our small community, in some way, to be in the ear that says when you’re making this decision, just know that there’s a small town in northern Maine that says they’d like to have a crack at opening up.”