A look back to the early days of coronavirus in Maine

I don’t typically write follow up columns to things I wrote, but in this case I’m going to have to make an exception.

A couple weeks ago, the column I wrote in these very pages declared in rather concrete terms that I was not worried about the coronavirus. What I was more worried about than the virus, I said, was the impact that mass panic over the virus was having, and would continue to have, on society.

The day after I wrote it, Gov. Janet Mills issued a recommendation that gatherings of 250 people or more be postponed or cancelled, in the wake of Maine’s first COVID-19 positive patient. A few days later, Mills revised the recommendation to be gatherings of 50, and then a few days later 10. On Tuesday she went even further, ordering “nonessential” businesses to close most of their public-facing operations.

Maine CDC Director Nirav Shah gives his daily COVID-19 press briefing in Augusta on Monday. Troy R. Bennett | BDN

To many readers, almost immediately after publishing the column, it had, as one commenter put it, “aged like unrefrigerated egg salad.”

Indeed, the column has become a source of derision, with the liberal Maine People’s Alliance getting a good laugh at my expense in one of their recent podcasts, and fellow Bangor Daily News columnist Amy Fried criticized conservative pundits for downplaying the dangers of coronavirus.

So, in short, I’ve had a bit of a target on my back for the last two weeks as the response to the coronavirus has exponentially grown more extreme.

But whether they are intentionally misrepresenting what I said for political reasons, or they genuinely misunderstood the point that I was making, none of these criticisms are fair. So let me try to reiterate the central point I was trying to make to you, dear reader.

Let’s take a step back and remember where we were early in the month, two weeks ago, because it is very important to have the benefit of context. This was before Mills had issued the 250 person gathering recommendation, before schools began to close across the state, and before businesses began to be tightly restricted.

At that moment, though, panic among the general public had begun to set in. For no logical reason whatsoever, people across Maine — and the country — began to frantically purchase normal consumer goods in bulk, doing things like hoarding for themselves more toilet paper than they could use in several months. Something they are still doing, by the way.

In my local Hannaford here in Yarmouth, I actually witnessed a physical confrontation between two women who were fighting over a small package of tissue paper. Hand sanitizer began to go for hundreds of dollars online.

Fear had caused an irrational reaction among the general public, which in turn caused people who were not reacting hysterically to contribute to the problem themselves as they reacted to the shortage with worry and began to shop.

My column was about that fear, that panic, and how it threatened the fiber of our society.

Nothing about what I said in that column suggested that the coronavirus was not a serious issue, that you should ignore the advice of healthcare professionals, or that we shouldn’t take serious action to combat it. Quite the opposite, as I specifically said “I’m not telling you to ignore anything a healthcare professional is telling you about the disease.”

Yes, I used the term “hysteria,” in the column, but I was specifically referring to how people in the country were reacting. I was not, as some are suggesting, saying that the cancellation of events like South by Southwest was “hysterical.”

If I do have a mea culpa for you, it would be that I thought such cancellations were unnecessarily draconian at the time, and today I realize that my dislike of those decisions was, in retrospect, misplaced. Something I’m happy to admit, if I’m being frank. But that admission doesn’t change the fact that I wasn’t referring to those decisions when I used the word “hysteria.”

In the end, what I did say in the column was that fear and panic are the enemies of reason, and I worry about the decisions we make — individually, and as a nation — when we are guided entirely by them.

There is a difference between, as I put it in the column, “living your life in fear and panic” about a virus, and acknowledging a danger and logically and dispassionately responding to it.

At the end of the day, that was my point. Don’t panic. Listen to public health officials, socially distance yourself as they say, and do everything you can to limit the spread of the virus.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.