On March 12, Maine reported its first case of COVID-19. Overnight, Mainers sprung into action. Neighbors are organizing trips to the grocery store for their elderly neighbors. Maine’s distilleries have begun manufacturing hand sanitizer. Maine sewing and manufacturing companies have switched gears to make personal protective equipment to keep health care workers safe.
As we confront this public health crisis, it’s important to remember that not only are we all in this together, but we will get through this together. Already, everyone in Maine is doing their part to keep people safe.
In the Legislature, we decided to temporarily suspend our work on March 17 in the interest of public health and safety. As presiding officers, we believed it was our responsibility to do everything we could to protect the health and well-being of all Mainers and limit the strain on our first responders, health care professionals and hospitals.
Before we adjourned, we passed critical emergency legislation to help Mainers through this COVID-19 crisis. Through a rapid, bipartisan response, we were able to pass laws that will help Mainers take care of themselves and their families and ensure they avoid spreading illness without the fear of losing a paycheck.
In our final day of session, we passed measures to temporarily expand unemployment insurance benefits, to establish a consumer loan guarantee program to help eligible Mainers access low- or no-interest loans and to authorize the governor to prohibit utilities from terminating residential electric and water service during this period.
Maine lawmakers also empowered the state Department of Education to waive certain school-day requirements and continue with school meal programs for hungry students. To directly combat the public health crisis, we invested in both public health nursing and the Maine Center for Disease Control, while putting $11 million in a fund to respond to COVID-19. We made major shifts in health care delivery, by expanding access to both telehealth and physicians assistants. And to prevent at least one headache, we ended surprise billing in emergency situations.
Throughout all of this, our priority was making sure Mainers were taken care of during this crisis.
Although the legislative session has adjourned, our work as lawmakers is not done. All of us are working behind the scenes to answer questions, help constituents get the support they need, share critical information and highlight resources. We’ve heard from small business owners, health care professionals, parents and workers who need help adjusting to this new normal.
Maine workers and small businesses have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. All across the state small businesses that rely on face-to-face customer interaction have suffered tremendously. While many customers have remained loyal, embracing curbside pickup and delivery, there’s still a lot of economic uncertainty. In fact, many of our small business owners have been forced to lay off valuable members of their staff, and are uncertain what the future holds.
Fortunately, there are a number of resources available. The US Small Business Administration is offering Economic Injury Disaster Loans. Businesses can check eligibility and apply online. As part of our efforts to make unemployment insurance benefits more accessible, employers can use a Maine Department of Labor program called Workshare to make sure their employees get partial unemployment benefits if their hours are reduced. Plus, we’ve made more consumer loans available at low-to-no interest with the help of Maine lenders.
For Maine workers who have been laid off, Maine has expanded our program to cover temporary unemployment and a number of COVID-19-specific situations. After hearing from constituents, we urged the federal government to expand unemployment to include self-proprietors and self-employed Mainers, which they did in the CARES Act. If you are interested in filing for unemployment, go to www.maine.gov/unemployment.
With so many people filing for unemployment, the best way to apply for benefits is through the website. If you aren’t usually eligible for unemployment but qualify under the latest federal changes, please wait to file. We are still waiting for guidance from the federal government. Benefits are retroactive.
Mainers will always be there for each other, and we will always find a way to get through a crisis together. We’re resourceful and resilient.
We’ve got grit. Just look at our farmers, fishermen and small business owners. Instead of letting this virus run them out of business, they’re creating new ways to distribute their goods and services.
We care deeply about our neighbors. Maine people are rushing Maine Helps to find out where and how they can volunteer. Doctors and nurses are coming out of retirement to help our hospital and clinics address patient needs.
Put simply, every one of us is finding a way to help someone else. As Mainers, it’s just what we do.
Sara Gideon is the speaker of the Maine House of Representatives. Troy Jackson is the president of the Maine Senate.