Commentary

Councilor Ben Hartwell: ‘I had to do something’

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A few weeks ago, I read about the City of Calais declaring all businesses as essential and the city giving their permission for businesses to reopen. A couple of people forwarded me the article suggesting we do something similar in Gorham.

At the time, I did not think it would have support. A few days later when gyms were getting ready to open following CDC guidelines, Governor Mills changed the reopening plan and would not allow them to open. To make matters worse, she did not provide any insight as to when they would be able to open.

One of our local businesses created a video sharing their disappointment in the change and discussed the preparations they had made and the precautions they were willing to take to be allowed to reopen. They were also clear that they would not be able to continue operating under the current reopening plan because they were already starting to lose memberships.

This was the point in time when I felt I needed to do something and sponsored the resolution that was passed on Tuesday. Unfortunately, that business, Grit & Grace Crossfit, has now closed permanently. They were not the first to close – Gorham Yoga Studio had already closed for good.

Restaurants were also preparing to open under the guidelines and had started to rehire their staff and purchase food. Then they were told that they would only be allowed to offer take-out and outdoor dining. This would not work for some businesses, and they too cannot survive under the governor’s current plan.

When the restrictions began a couple of months ago, the intention was to “flatten the curve,” to avoid a situation like Italy dealt with where their health care system was overwhelmed. The models were based on the idea that we would all likely get the virus eventually, but we needed to prevent the surge that would overwhelm the system.

There were predictions of several thousand people flooding into Maine hospitals. These predictions never materialized anywhere close to what the models initially predicted.

Somewhere along the line, the goal posts shifted away from prevention of overwhelming our healthcare system to preventing anyone from getting sick, an impossible task.

At this point, it was clear that I had to do something – anything to prevent more Gorham businesses from closing their doors forever. I wasn’t sure how the resolution would be received. I received more emails on this issue than any other I have before, the vast majority of which were supportive of the resolution.

I thought the resolution would pass by a slim majority, if at all, so I was delighted when it passed with only a single vote against it. Some have tried to label this as political grandstanding, but the fact is that this was passed with bipartisan support. Gorham Town Council candidates do not identify their party when running for office, but this resolution was passed by one republican, two democrats, and three independents.

It’s important to note that the state still preempts local control on this matter, but our resolution is a strong message that we support our businesses and support their reopening.

Maine was the last New England state to release COVID-19 data by zip code, which became available only two days ago. At the time that data was published, Gorham had a total cumulative count of 54 probable or confirmed cases. That is only 0.3% of our population.

I encourage other town councils to push back and get the support needed to shift some of these decisions to municipalities.

About Ben Hartwell

Ben Hartwell is a 2019 graduate of the University of Maine School of Law and an associate at The Law Office of Bruce W. Helper. He raises grass-fed beef in Gorham, where he also serves as town councilor.

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