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Last Thursday, Gov. Janet Mills offered four principles to guide the reopening of Maine’s economy: protecting public health, maintaining health care readiness, building reliable and accessible testing, and prioritizing public-private collaboration.
In step with the fourth principle, Mills and her administration also launched a new online portal through the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD) that allows businesses owners, employees and other Mainers share ideas about reopening the economy as Maine, the country and the world continue to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Government alone cannot fix things. Government doesn’t always have all the answers,” Mills said at Thursday’s media briefing. “We need the best thinking of all Maine people from every industry and every corner of the state to reimagine and reinvent how we do things in this state in a way that protects both our lives and our livelihoods.”
That message is very well taken, but as the economic restart planning continues, we have to wonder if the state would benefit from a more formal reopening group, such as a task force or commission, to combine the knowledge of state officials, public health experts, business and labor leaders, and bipartisan representation from the Maine Legislature.
Mills said Monday that she hopes to detail plans on Tuesday for a new process for determining what Maine business can begin to reopen. That plan would be based on the operation of businesses and safety, not whether they are deemed “essential.”
From what we know so far, this sounds like a more appropriate way to consider which businesses can welcome customers and how. But these decisions should be made with maximum input and transparency.
Mills has said that Maine is coordinating with New Hampshire and Vermont on efforts to eventually reopen the economy. Both of those states have created some form of official reopening task force. In New Hampshire, Republican Gov. Chris Sununu has established the Governor’s Economic Re-Opening Task Force. In Vermont, Republican Gov. Phil Scott has launched an Economic Mitigation & Recovery Task Force, which has several subcommittees, including a RestartVT Team of state business leaders.
“It is my hope that a committee of dedicated individuals can brainstorm ways that Maine can move forward safely, before the economic and psychological toll becomes worse than the health impacts of COVID-19,” Republican Rep. Billy Bob Faulkingham wrote in an OpEd circulated by the Maine House Republicans last week that called for the creation of a reopening commission. We agree, provided the focus remains on safety and political posturing is checked at the door.
Heather Johnson, the commissioner of the Department of Economic and Community Development, told the BDN on Friday that she does not currently envision this type of official group being created here in Maine.
She said her department is working with business owners around the state to understand their specific daily processes, and then looking to identify high risk moments related to the coronavirus such as customer-facing activity or the congregation of groups of people. Johnson also noted that DECD is then partnering with public health experts from the Maine Department of Health and Human services on what can be done to understand and minimize the risk of different business activities.
“And then we are putting together a checklist by industry to say: here’s the guidance for the industry around how we think activities can happen safely,” Johnson said, adding that the plan is then to take those checklists to business leaders and have a discussion about what they would mean for the different industries and if they are workable.
She also noted that the state is “trying to make sure that we don’t limit the engagement,” noting that the online portal allows her department to hear from people “who are not traditionally people who sit on task forces and panels, but have very valuable feedback and input.” Mills said Monday that more than 1,600 pieces of feedback have come in through the portal.
“It’s not that there isn’t a structure to the work. It’s not that there aren’t clear guiding principles that we are working through,” Johnson added.
It’s good to hear Johnson talk about the ongoing work and outreach with Maine’s business community. But it’s also important for the state to show that work as it’s happening — to bring businesses and the entire state along with public discussions that can provide greater clarity about the process.
The fact that a formal task force or commission hasn’t been created here in Maine does not mean engagement with the private sector isn’t already being done. And we’d be the first to point out in normal times that creating commissions and task forces can often lead to plans that sit on a shelf and never see the light of day.
These aren’t normal times, however. Uncertainty has ruled the day. A more formal group focused on reopening the Maine economy could help provide additional structure and transparency to ongoing efforts to plan for a safe reopening of the Maine economy.