Throughout this pandemic, legislative Republicans have sought to give voice to the individuals, families and Maine businesses that are being harmed by the governor’s dictatorial response to COVID-19. We have sought a rational debate on the merits of shutting down many activities in Maine. We have repeatedly questioned whether decisions are based on science and available data, fear, or political considerations.
This approach, and the disappointing reaction from the governor, was once again highlighted last week. Her crass words, suggesting that “Republicans care more about Massachusetts money than the life of a Maine person,” in response to a plan thoughtfully presented totally ignored the legitimate points raised by the tourism industry and the thousands of Mainers whose livelihoods depend on it.
The Work with Maine group, which sought input from the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, Hospitality Maine and other tourism industry groups, approached me with a plan to salvage the Maine summer tourism season by allowing Massachusetts and Rhode Island residents to be treated the same as residents of New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Vermont and New Hampshire when visiting Maine. The plan called for an update to the state exemption list based on testing data consistent with that provided by the World Health Organization and John Hopkins University.
In a July 16 press release from Work with Maine, Steve Hewins, president and CEO of HospitalityMaine, said: “We are very disappointed because we had expected the governor would exempt Massachusetts and Rhode Island on Tuesday. The longer this continues, and that gatherings like weddings remain limited to 50 people, the more jobs are lost and businesses permanently close.”
The industry plan that was advanced also includes increasing the gathering size of individuals from a maximum of 50 to 150 inside or outside, as long as proper distancing can be achieved. I, along with the industry, am happy to see the governor has finally acquiesced on this point and has moved to allow increased numbers in outside gatherings. This move puts the state closer to other New England states’ gathering sizes and allows Mainers to compete for business. New Hampshire no longer has a group limit at all. Vermont has a 150 outdoor limit and 75 indoors, Rhode Island has 150 outdoor limit and 75 indoors. Connecticut allows 100 outdoors and 25 indoors and Massachusetts limits gathers to 100 outdoors and 25 indoors.
Even while adopting a portion of one of the changes, Gov. Janet Mills accused Republicans of caring more about Massachusetts money than the lives of Mainers. Again, there is more divisive rhetoric from the governor instead of having an honest debate and discussion about the merits of the proposal or the science behind it.
Republicans are not alone in having concerns about the administration’s response and the effect it is having on more than just our business and tourism industry. Recently, it was reported that Maine opioid deaths jumped to 127, a 23 percent increase over the final quarter of 2019. Two of Maine’s largest domestic violence programs report that calls are up 40 percent to 50 percent, compared with this time last year. Maine liquor sales have jumped 15 percent since the beginning of the pandemic. These are all statistical facts, transparent data readily available for all to see.
Does anybody really believe that isolating at home for four months with no savings, no income, no job or access to traditional community supports isn’t silently destroying families and the fabric of our communities?
Is the dysfunction of Maine’s unemployment insurance system four months into this crisis helping the situation?
Republicans want a rational debate on the merits of the governor’s policies, especially the data used to justify them, not just irresponsible irrational statements that appear to reflect an official operating out of pure fear rather than the science-driven data she and closest advisers have touted for months. My colleagues and I will not lower ourselves to the level of such behavior and once again call on the governor and her administration to engage with all members of the Legislature in a civil and constructive nature.
Throughout this state of emergency, legislative Republicans have worked to give those afraid to speak the opportunity to be heard. We will continue to do so. The very least the governor can do is respond to their concerns and issues directly, on their merits, and with the respect that Mainers deserve.
Harold “Trey” Stewart, R-Presque Isle, is the assistant House Republican leader in the Maine House of Representatives.