An update from our Government & Public Relations Group in Augusta:
March 20, 2020
This was a week like none other in Augusta. As the COVID-19 crisis unfolded, the Mills Administration and State Legislature worked overtime to deliver emergency measures to help Maine cope with the growing coronavirus pandemic. Members of the Executive and Legislative branches worked round-the-clock to identify legal barriers and challenges to the State’s response to the crisis, and the Legislature convened for one final time on Tuesday, March 17 to pass key pieces of legislation before adjourning indefinitely. The Governor gave remarks to Legislators upon the completion of their work on Tuesday night, saying that she would like the Legislature to return for a special session after the public health emergency subsides. She further encouraged the Legislature to focus only on the “highest priority” issues during that potential special session.
The events of the past week illustrated the fast-moving nature of the State’s response to the coronavirus. Heading into last weekend, most schools and businesses remained open, and Mainers were urged to practice “social distancing” and avoid gatherings of 250 people or more. However, as the weekend wore on, more and more school systems around the State announced closures, and more businesses announced temporary closures – including iconic ski areas like Sugarloaf and Sunday River. On Sunday March 15, Governor Mills issued a proclamation of civil emergencyfor the State of Maine and advised Mainers to take certain steps to protect public health, including:
- Ending classroom instruction in all public schools as soon as reasonably practical;
- Postponing all non-urgent medical procedures, elective surgeries, and appointments at hospitals and health care providers across the state until further notice;
- Restricting visitors and all non-essential health care personnel to long-term care facilities except for certain compassionate care situations such as end of life until further notice;
- Postponing all events with 50 or more people all gatherings of more than 10 that include individuals who are at higher risk for severe illness, such as seniors, until further notice.
On Wednesday, March 18, the Governor exercised her emergency powers to issue an Executive Order mandating that:
- All restaurants and bars statewide must close to dine-in customers for a period of 14 days until midnight, March 31. Take-out, delivery, and drive-through options can continue;
- All gatherings of more than 10 people were prohibited until further notice, mandating the latest U.S. CDC’s guidance on gatherings.
In addition, Governor Mills strongly urged non-essential public-facing businesses, such as gyms, hair salons, theatres, casinos, shopping malls, to close their doors for the next two weeks to minimize public gatherings.
The measures adopted in Maine and around the country are expected to slow the spread of the virus and “flatten the curve” to better allow our healthcare system to treat individuals affected by the virus. However, these safety measures also had an immediate and negative effect on the stock market and employment as businesses closed their doors for an uncertain future. To address the growing economic threat to the State, the Mills Administration has taken several important steps. Within the past week, the Administration submitted an application to the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) for loan assistance, and on Monday, March 16, the State was granted SBA Economic Injury Disaster Loans to help Maine businesses overcome any temporary loss of revenue due to the coronavirus. Maine was one of the first states in the country to be approved. According to the SBA, the loans offer up to $2 million in assistance for small businesses and may be used to pay fixed debts, payroll, accounts payable and other bills that can’t be paid because of the disaster’s impact. Maine small businesses can now access and apply for Economic Impact Disaster Loans here.
Also on Monday, March 16, the Legislature’s Appropriations and Financial Affairs (AFA) Committee members agreed upon a bipartisan Supplemental State Budget that prioritizes coronavirus response. The $74 million Supplemental Budget included:
- $1 million for the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, which will be used to supplement federal funds to expand capacity at the State laboratory and to hire and retain critical health care personnel including epidemiologists and public health nurses to respond to the pandemic;
- $15 million for rate increases to support direct health care providers who are caring for Maine seniors, people with disabilities and children with behavioral health needs;
- $38 million for pre-K-12 education raising the State’s contribution by one percent from 50.78 to 51.78 percent, another step towards the 55 percent in state law;
- $10 million to repair the State’s roads, bridges, and other transportation infrastructure;
- $17.4 million to the Budget Stabilization Fund to prepare for the possibility of future COVID-19 related expenses or any shifts in Maine’s economy as a result of COVID-19.
Items from the Governor’s original Supplemental Budget that were not included in the final budget package may be revisited when the Legislature reconvenes later in the year.
Finally, the Legislative Council on Monday ordered that members of the public remain outside the State House in order to limit the risk of further spreading the virus. Only legislators, necessary staff, and members of the media would be permitted into the building – including for the final day of the session.
On Tuesday, March 17, in the wake of a growing number of confirmed cases of COVID-19, the State moved swiftly to cancel all public St. Patrick’s Day festivities to avoid large gatherings. That same day, the Legislature went into session -- devoid of the public -- and passed the bipartisan supplemental budget approved the day before by the AFA Committee. The Governor quickly signed the measure on Wednesday. In addition, the House and Senate passed emergency legislation aimed at reducing the negative effects of the coronavirus in Maine. The key elements from this legislation included:
- Granting Governor Mills access to at least $11 million in State funding to respond to COVID-19;
- Temporarily expanding eligibility for unemployment benefits for workers impacted by COVID-19 and waiving the 1-week waiting period for receipt of unemployment benefits;
- Authorizing Governor Mills to prohibit utilities from terminating residential electric and water service;
- Establishing a consumer loan guarantee program through FAME, in partnership with financial institutions, to provide low- or no-interest loans for eligible people in Maine;
- Increasing the Department of Education’s ability to waive certain school-day requirements and to continue school meal programs for all children;
- Authorizing Governor Mills to adjust state, county and municipal government deadlines and to permit all public entities to meet by remote participation;
- Expanding the ability of Maine Emergency Medical Services’ Board and staff to take actions more promptly;
- Authorizing Governor Mills to determine and direct the manner of the June 2020 primary, if necessary;
- Delaying the effective date of the single-use plastic bag ban to January 15, 2021.
Following passage of these and other key bills, the Legislature adjourned “sine die” Tuesday evening. A special session is likely, but few know precisely when it will be safe to return.
At this point, Maine expects to learn of additional cases of coronavirus as testing ramps up and community infection takes root. Meanwhile, on a nearly daily basis, new safety measures are being announced. To keep the public informed, the Governor has set up a webpage containing important information regarding COVID-19 and the State’s response. The Maine CDC has also set up a page with key information about the coronavirus.
To help our clients and friends in responding to the COVID-19 crisis, Verrill and Maine Street Solutions have been providing regular alerts with guidance related to employment issues, benefits, small business assistance, and other key issues. These alerts are available on Verrill’s COVID-19 resources page. Verrill and Maine Street Solutions also acted swiftly to protect its employees and the public by asking employees to work from home and observe CDC-recommended health protocols. So, as of this writing, our Augusta team remains in close contact by phone and email, but we are each riding out the storm at home with other family members home from school, work, and college.
Last week, none of us knew that the Legislature would be adjourning this week, or that all schools and many businesses would be closing. However, as the threat of the virus to Maine became clear, Maine leaders quickly rose to the occasion – on a bipartisan basis -- to keep us safe. We have also seen key businesses and community institutions step up to help, including chambers of commerce, iconic Maine businesses, community nonprofits, and leaders of state and local government. Although the crisis is far from over, we couldn’t be more proud of our State and the people in it.
Looking ahead, our team will remain dispersed, but connected and ready to meet your needs. We continue to work full days and are available by phone and email, just as we always have. So, while our weekly legislative updates will cease now that the Legislature has gone home, we remain at your service – now, more than ever. Please know that we are thinking of you, your families, and your coworkers, and we hope you are staying healthy during this challenging time.