In this Oct. 28, 2020, file photo, Gov. Janet Mills attends a political rally in Bangor. Credit: Eesha Pendharkar / BDN

Good morning from Augusta. There are 13 days until the new Maine Legislature convenes.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: “It’s a golden opportunity,” Brian Pearce, captain of the gillnetter Gracelyn Jane, said of a plan by the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association to use grant money to buy fish before it hits auction and donate it to schools and food banks. “It gives us a fair price on the fish. Otherwise, I wouldn’t even be fishing. I stayed tied up all summer.” Here’s your soundtrack.

What we’re watching today

Coronavirus cases continue to rise, but Maine has balked at further restrictions with lack of federal aid being a key reason. Gov. Janet Mills urged Mainers to wear masks and avoid large Thanksgiving gatherings on Wednesday, saying the next few weeks would be a “crucial test” but stopped short of new virus mandates.

Case levels are now far higher than in April, when Mills required nonessential businesses across the state to shut down and ordered strict gathering limits. One thing has changed, however: Then, the federal government offered significant aid individuals and businesses, through forgivable business loans, expanded unemployment aid and stimulus checks.

“We could do the things we did back in the spring because we had help from the federal government,” Mills said during the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s daily briefing on Wednesday. “That help is not there right now.”

Federal help seems like a distant possibility right now, because Congress adjourned Wednesday for Thanksgiving. Lawmakers have been deadlocked on additional virus aid for months after failing to reach an agreement to extend enhanced unemployment benefits at the end of July. Two other federal unemployment programs are set to expire in late December.

Lawmakers will have a chance to renew those programs and pass additional stimulus when they return to Washington after Thanksgiving. But they will have other priorities — such as avoiding a government shutdown — before the end of the year, with many speculating a relief package could be postponed until after President-elect Joe Biden is inaugurated Jan. 20.

The Maine politics top 3

— “Lawmakers eye overhaul of Maine’s stressed unemployment system, but money is tight,” Caitlin Andrews, Bangor Daily News: “Like many of its counterparts in other states, the Maine Department of Labor struggled this year as unemployment skyrocketed. Many experienced long wait times, delayed claims and fraud that kept them from getting benefits. Democrats want more resources to help the department. The department hinted at a push to overhaul unemployment infrastructure. A top Republican says change is necessary but was wary of a projected $1.4 billion revenue shortfall over three years.”

— “Maine will stop investigating suspected COVID-19 cases until tests confirm them,” Charles Eichacker, BDN: “On Wednesday, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention announced that its investigators will no longer try to find the origins of probable coronavirus cases until they have been confirmed with a test. They have previously been investigating both confirmed cases and those classified as “probable” because they involve symptoms similar to COVID-19.”

The change in policy is partly due to the rising case numbers and party due to the oncoming cold and flu season. Those familiar ailments can have similar symptoms to COVID-19, and health officials are urging people to get vaccinated against the flu to both keep people healthy and prevent confusion. 

In neighboring New Hampshire, health officials are taking a different tack amid widespread community transmission: They have stopped contact tracing except for those who are particularly vulnerable or likely to catch the virus, including children, older adults, Black and other people of color, and health care workers.

— “Families optimistic Supreme Court will overturn Maine’s ban on religious school funding,” Judy Harrison, BDN: “There’s ‘a strong likelihood’ the nation’s highest court will hear the case after the appellate court in Boston upheld Maine’s law last month, said Tim Keller, a lawyer with the Institute for Justice in Mesa, Arizona. And there’s even reason to believe the court will hear arguments in the case sooner rather than later.”

The plaintiffs are challenging a state law saying towns without high schools can only pay tuition for students attending nonsectarian schools. The Bangor Christian Schools students involved in the lawsuit come from Glenburn, Orrington and Palermo, which do not have high schools of their own. The law has been upheld by Maine’s high court and two federal courts have rejected their argument. Their challenge is being made under a 2017 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, which now has a 6-3 conservative majority, making the families hopeful.

Today’s Daily Brief was written by Michael Shepherd, Caitlin Andrews and Jessica Piper. If you’re reading this on the BDN’s website or were forwarded it, email clumm@bangordailynews.com (we’re setting up a new subscriber page soon) to subscribe to it via email.

To reach us, do not reply directly to this newsletter, but contact the political team at mshepherd@bangordailynews.com, candrews@bangordailynews.com or jpiper@bangordailynews.com.

Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...