Gov. Janet Mills says closed restaurants could sell food to prisons, but there’s a catch

Governor Janet Mills makes a statement via video from her office amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

AUGUSTA – In an apparent effort to mitigate the fallout from her late decision to deny southern Maine restaurants the ability to open on June 1, Governor Janet Mills is inviting restaurants to sell the food they ordered to Maine prisons. But the government requirements on the offer are difficult and also drawing criticism.

Restaurants in Cumberland, York and Androscoggin County had been planning to reopen to indoor dining with health precautions in place on June 1. That included ordering food and beverage, purchasing health and safety materials, changing restaurant layouts and calling back employees.

On May 27, less than five days before the scheduled reopening, Mills announced her administration’s June 1 reopen date was scrapped and offered no new date where restaurants could reopen to indoor dining. The decision sparked an outcry in the restaurant industry, with dozens of restaurants saying they had already ordered perishable foods and beverages, relying on guidance they had received just before saying they should anticipate opening on June 1.

Lawmakers, such as Senator Bob Foley, said the Mills administration had given him guidance just days before telling him the same thing. Even some Democratic lawmakers, typically allies of Governor Mills, said they had not been told and distanced themselves from the Governor’s decision.

Lawmakers and the restaurant industry alike have said the move was akin to “pulling the rug out” from under the restaurants.

Following the controversial decision to keep the restaurants shut down, Mills issued a news release saying the Maine Department of Corrections would “support” those restaurants by purchasing the food they had stocked in anticipation of the reopening. But there are two bureaucratic hurdles for the restaurants to deal with.

In her announcement, Governor Mills said that restaurants can only sell the food “at a price equivalent to the price paid for the same items through MDOC’s food contract.” Restaurant owners and those with knowledge of the food service industry say that the arrangement will still result in significant losses to the restaurants. Small independent restaurants can’t purchase food at the price they would have to sell food to the Maine DOC for.

Compounding matters, Governor Mills is also requiring that any restaurant that wishes to sell food to the Dept. of Corrections also must fill out an application to become an approved state of Maine vendor through the Maine DOC. That process is being seen as piling insult on top of injury to restaurateurs struggling to survive.

“I hope this move will provide some measure of relief to businesses in these counties as we work to protect public health, keep Maine people healthy and alive, and mitigate the spread of this deadly virus so we can safely reopen,” said Governor Janet Mills in releasing the statement.

Maine People Before Politics, a group that closely monitors state policy matters, issued a statement critical of Mills’ decision, saying, “When government bureaucrats create a problem, their only solution is more government.”

Some restaurant owners in York County have issued an ultimatum, saying they will open on June 15, with or without Governor Mills’ approval, according to WMTW.

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