Commentary

Open letter to Gov. Mills: It’s time to reopen Maine

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Dear Governor Mills,

Many Mainers are facing desperate times. I would like to offer my thoughts for consideration so together we can move this state into a healthy, positive direction. It’s vital we exercise wisdom and insight as we go forward. I believe you desire the best for the people in this state. In that light, I will communicate the struggles facing many of my constituents. If they were to speak to you, they would share their struggles in a much more blunt manner.

When people are denied the right to earn a living to support themselves and their families, they are stripped of the will to thrive. I urge you to consider other issues that extend beyond those afflicted or potentially afflicted by COVID-19. The collateral damage is escalating exponentially each day the shutdown economy continues.

In the daily briefings it is repeatedly suggested for people to sit at home and continue watching Netflix. All the while people are disintegrating into desperation and despondency. This dismissive suggestion is very troubling. It illustrates a lack of comprehension for the wide-reaching implications of these mandates. We are significantly compounding the mental health crisis we have been trying to address here in Maine.

I would like to address two specific issues of great concern that need immediate attention: the lack of accessibility to unemployment and the need to reopen Maine.

Businesses and employees are now in great peril. It has been five weeks for many Mainers who have been laid off. People have yet to receive a check from the unemployment office despite calling hundreds of times in one day, just to be put on hold and then disconnected. Five weeks of this is unacceptable and needs to be addressed now.

The self-employed and sole proprietors are being immediately dismissed out of hand with no explanation, yet they have had no income for well over a month as well. The federal government has released the funds and the states are the ones who have to process them to the self-employed individuals who file a claim, yet there is no means by which one can file a claim as of yet. This program is supposed to be up and running by April 30th. It’s working in other states currently. What’s going on here in Maine?

Policies going forward must address both those who have been laid-off as well as the self-employed. Businesses need to reopen in a mindful manner, which I will address as well.

The following are my suggestions:

UNEMPLOYMENT

  • Immediately utilize the career centers around the state, also bring furloughed state workers and state employees from all other departments to work around the clock, three shifts to promptly get the job done
  • Keep phone lines open for 14 hrs, 8am –10 pm.
  • Half of the workers take calls, the other half process checks
  • Mail checks immediately.
  • Do not hang up on anyone without being able to directly call them back.
  • Do not discontinue a conversation because the shift has ended and a state worker wants to go home – that’s not acceptable.
  • Provide instructions to the self-employed individuals that their needs will be met. Communicate it’s a federal program that is still being constructed. Assure them it is retroactive and will provide them $600/week. Let them know how to file a claim when the they can.
  • Eliminate the bottleneck regarding the intakes – this must be top priority.
  • Continue until everyone has received their needed unemployment checks.
  • No excuses are acceptable. People are in a panic and are desperate.

If we care for every life, and that’s the reason for the restrictions we are currently under, then it’s time to pay attention to the hundreds of thousands who have no money. Only you can fix this!

REOPEN MAINE

  • Low Risk Districts: There are 12-13 districts which have less than 20 cases and declining. These districts should reopen immediately. It will begin slowly and it will be important to monitor progress.
  • Let businesses establish their own safety measures. Businesses have a strong drive for self-preservation and will take safety precautions in the interest of their customers, or risk losing their patronage. They will be motivated to minimize health risks that jeopardize their customers’ safety.
  • Allow businesses to communicate their safety measures to the public that ensure public health and regain their confidence.
  • High Risk Districts need to consider a modified schedule to fully re-open.
  • Reconsider the businesses that can fully operate that are not on the “essential” businesses list.
  • Reopen outdoor businesses immediately and use common sense criteria – golfing, outdoor recreation, parks, etc. should be allowed to reopen while maintaining social distancing.
  • Allow any business to open when they can demonstrate adequate safety measures for the public.
  • Triage: the contaminated should remain quarantined, the elderly and those with fragile health should choose to stay in place, and the healthy should go back to work while taking responsibility for their own health.
  • Individual behavior and personal responsibility is premium and needs to be honored. We all are now fully aware of the consequences and are capable of self-regulating our own behavior. It’s time we allow people to demonstrate this, while at the same time allowing them to earn a living.
  • Maine citizens should be more aware of surroundings so contact tracing can occur with greater ease should a problem arise.
  • Out-of-state guests and visitors, welcome to Maine. They should continue to self-quarantine for 14 days, use social distancing practices like the rest of us, and abide by CDC hygiene instructions.

Most importantly, we need to reopen our businesses now. The COVID-19 data and trends in Maine suggest this is most favorable to begin. It needs to be done in an intelligent and safe manner per federal guidelines designed to produce safe workplaces.

People and businesses are well versed on how to accomplish this. A thoughtful restart up will help mitigate the even more devastating consequences of economic ruin.

Respectfully,

Representative Heidi H. Sampson

About Heidi Sampson

Rep. Heidi Sampson is serving her second term in the Maine House of Representatives where she represents House District 21: Alfred, Newfield and parts of Limerick, Parsonsfield and Shapleigh. Rep. Sampson is a veteran home educator who is also the first home educator to be appointed to the State Board of Education. She serves on the Maine Legislature's Education and Cultural Affairs Committee and is a frequent speaker around the state on various topics in education.

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