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A group providing recommendations to Gov. Janet Mills on restarting the coronavirus-damaged Maine economy will float its first set of urgent actions to the governor next week, including aligning tourism restrictions with neighboring states and providing education and broadband aid.
Six subcommittees of the Democratic governor’s Economic Recovery Committee met in a Friday morning webinar to air “quick start” suggestions. Their aim is to get the Maine economy back on track while working within mandates that often stunt business activity.
Mills formed the 37-member committee in early May and set a July 15 deadline for the group’s preliminary report and Dec. 1 for the final report. The quick-start actions could begin before July 15, however.
High on the list for committee members were getting schools and businesses restarted safely and directing federal help for education and broadband infrastructure.
Josh Broder, CEO of Tilson Technology in Portland and co-chair of the committee, said it is challenging to plan for an economic recovery when it isn’t clear when things will get back to normal.
“The pandemic is still ongoing and an emergency despite the relatively stable case rates that we’ve had,” he said. “That’s the elephant in the room that we have to work with as a committee, including pandemic control measures.”
The hospitality, retail and tourism industries have been particularly hard hit because they are small, less resilient and have a shorter business season than many other enterprises, he said.
Maine needs to align its visitor mandates, like the 14-day quarantine or a negative COVID-19 test, with neighboring New Hampshire and Vermont, which have less restrictive requirements, said Bob Montgomery-Rice, chair of the subcommittee on hospitality, retail and tourism and president and CEO of Bangor Savings Bank.
He said there is strong anecdotal evidence that a significant number of tourists who otherwise would have visited Maine this summer are traveling to other states in the lower part of New England.
“To our knowledge, the state has never experienced an economic catastrophe of this magnitude in recent history,” he said.
Montgomery-Rice said a 50 percent drop in the 23 million tourists who visited Maine last summer represents a $1.85 billion blow to the state’s economy. He also is recommending more financial support for the tourism and retail industries. The tourism industry has already asked the state for $800 million in federal aid money.
Infrastructure subcommittee chair Susan Corbett, the founder and director of the National Digital Equity Center, said her priority is broadband, because it crosses all industry segments and is critical to economic recovery. She wants to direct $60 million in federal funding for broadband to underserved communities.
Betsy Biemann, chair of the innovation subcommittee and CEO of Coastal Enterprises Inc., also wants subsidized high-speed and affordable fiber internet installed to collaborative workspaces and digital deserts in the state. She said the installations could serve as a bridge until the state makes a larger strategic investment to expand its broadband infrastructure.
Getting students back to in-person education was a priority of several subcommittees. Larry Shaw, chair of the manufacturing and natural resource industries committee and CEO of MMG Insurance, said he wants K-12 schools and higher education to get students back to classrooms so working parents can get back on the job.
James Herbert, chair of the education and workforce subcommittee and president of the University of New England, said he wants federal money to help schools reopen safely. It costs an average of $1,986 to safely get a four-year college student back to school and $1,033 per community college student.
“None of the colleges and universities have this in their budgets,” he said. “These will be new expenses.”