April 16 Letter to the Governor from Maine's Joint Republican Caucus 129th Legislature
Apr 19, 2020
April 16, 2020
Honorable Janet T. Mills
We are writing in hopes of establishing a better line of communication between you, your administration, and members of the Legislature.
We understand the extraordinary amount of pressure you and your administration are operating under and we all are aware of the need for social distancing in order to mitigate the spread of COVID-19; but we are concerned with the lack of information around some very important policy decisions being made by the administration.
Unfortunately, we often find ourselves learning of decisions being made through press conferences. We appreciated the opportunity to participate in a conference call with you the day after your call with our Democrat counterparts, but we were collectively disappointed that much of the information shared had just been announced in that afternoon's press conference. We had been under the impression that the numerous questions we had, and that were delivered to your office beforehand, were going to be addressed. Most were not and we have just now received some answers.
An example of this notification process via press conference would be the announcement of the extension of the Civil State of Emergency. We believe something this important to the citizens of Maine rises to the level of the need for prior notice, even if not a discussion. Other examples would be when we received notice through an email, late the evening after our conference call with you, that the Commissioner of the Department of Education was recommending the school year continue with remote learning and students not return to school. Another was not informing all caucuses of the decision to move the primary election instead allowing in some cases the information to be disseminated by a majority party candidate for office. Though you did mention the election piece briefly during our call the following day, we were still left with many questions around both issues; and we learned of the final decision to move the election through your press conference concerning the Executive Order. It was through a similar method that we learned there was to be a conference call between the majority party and you.
We understand the need for planning and preparedness; but without an understanding as to why those decisions are being made nearly two months out, not just merely planned for, puts us in a position of not being able to answer the constituent calls coming in. This lack of communication gives the perception that many important decisions that normally would require that the legislative body weigh in are instead being made without any input from all elected officials. It fuels a feeling among the public that not all information is being shared and further feeds uncertainty about this time and damages morale as people sit and feel they have no control over their lives. We all want to be prepared for what lies ahead and open communication is key.
Many of the questions we shared with your office came from those we, members of the Legislature and you as Governor, represent. We are sure you can understand it is difficult and frustrating for us to continually tell those that contact us that we have no answers for them and are unable to ease their fear and angst. We each serve because we want to help those that we represent. We are not only concerned for their physical wellbeing and mental health, but also concerned for the health of our economy. With that said, we believe it is important that we bring our concerns directly to you.
An area of concern for many of us are the conditions surrounding the Department of Labor. We have been advised that we are not to contact the Department directly and are required to put our questions to your office. If it assists with streamlining questions and allows the department to focus on issues at hand, we all certainly will follow this new procedure. In doing so, we hope that our questions and concerns will be addressed in a timely manner as they arise.
We are aware that the administration has moved individuals from other departments to assist in the increased call volume to the Bureau of Unemployment Compensation as well as having hired one hundred more individuals to also field the many calls. We agree that the situation we find ourselves in is certainly nothing that can be adequately planned for and we commend the many steps that have been taken to this point. We are concerned for those individuals that have received denial letters, have had issues with their filing but have not been able to contact and speak with any individual in the Bureau, or those that are self-employed and have not been able to file. For many, when our constituents reach out to us, we are their last resource. We have been contacted by individuals that have been waiting at least a month concerning their filing and have yet to receive any information. They are scared and through no fault of their own, they have lost their income and ability to support their families and are in crisis situations. When they call us, we are advised by your office to tell them to keep calling. That simply is not good enough. We have made suggestions of looking into a dedicated phone line or email where these individuals can call or reach out. We have suggested that a queue system be created so individuals do not have to spend hours waiting on hold to no avail. Perhaps none of these ideas can be implemented but it would be helpful to have a dialogue to discuss these and many more. At times like these, we should be looking to all possible suggestions to aid members of our society.
We also have had many questions concerning the Department of Economic and Community Development and the parameters around issuance of essential business status. We contacted the Department on items such as those businesses with federal firearms status and were happy to have our concerns heard and to see them added to the Essential Business Operations list, but our other concerns seem to have fallen on deaf ears. We can see no rhyme or reason to how these decisions are made. We have asked for the guiding rubric and parameters used when establishing what is and what is not essential, but we have been given no such guidance. We have been told, when questioning the firearms dealers' issue, that the Homeland Securities Essential Infrastructure designation was used; but it appears that is used as a guide, not a rule. Again, if that is the case, what other guides are used to determine the status of essential? When speaking in terms of our economy, all businesses are essential and are needed not only to support revenues and individuals' livelihoods but also their sense of being.
Looking specifically at two categories of businesses that are closed due to non-essential status, golf courses and pool/hot tub installation and the services they provide, we would like to learn why they have been given this status. We understand and agree with the need for caution and for businesses to follow the recommended CDC guidelines, but we also are trying to understand how two businesses that operate out of doors and are very similar in their workings to that of other businesses deemed essential are not allowed to operate.
In regards to golf courses, we provided the Department with many suggestions offered by course owners and managers on how they could implement policies to allow for social distancing; such things as walkers only or single use of golf carts, mandatory tee times with extended times between them, leaving green pins in so participants are not required to place their hand in the cup, no club rentals, and etc. Individuals traveling in from out of state was given as one reason for why courses should not be open. With the order requiring those same individuals to self-quarantine for two weeks, has that already been addressed? If we allow well over 50 individuals to stand in lines six feet apart for close to an hour, we should be able to create guidelines for courses to adhere to which would ensure proper safety while providing a means for physical exercise and keep one small portion of our economy operating.
With respect to pool and hot tub installation and their services they provide, in the past we have been told these services are not essential. Area businesses within this industry have applied for exemption status and have received a form letter deeming they are not essential. We have now been given guidance by your office that they are deemed essential under property maintenance. We would like clarification on this type of work because any installation would require excavation work, which is already allowed under the essential list. Speaking with those in the industry, they contend all other aspects of installation can be done while observing CDC guidelines, no different than other fields of construction. They also believe all arrangements can be done via the internet and telephone. More importantly are the services they provide to current pool and hot tub owners. It is imperative that they be allowed to perform season opening services as well as sell all necessary chemicals required for proper water quality to avoid pools and hot tubs becoming breeding areas for insects and disease, if not treated correctly.
Another area of concern for all of us is around our elderly population. It has been brought to our attention that many of these individuals, though they have the ability to live on their own, struggle with other areas of hygiene. They rely on their barbers and hairdressers to assist them with washing their hair and grooming facial hair. This isn't out of vainness but rather for cleanliness. There is also the concern for those that suffer with diabetes and require regular grooming by those trained, but are not necessarily medical professionals, to watch for abscesses or infections. We've asked if there is any possibility to work with the CDC to provide guidelines for trained individuals to serve elderly individuals at home, if those elderly individuals choose to do so.
We are also concerned about what plans are being made to reopen all businesses in the State. Again, we understand the need to be cautious and to rely on medical professionals when making these decisions; but we also believe it is important to continue to include business owners when making these decisions. It would be useful to understand what parameters are going to be used to make the determination. We know the department is very busy but also believe it is imperative that plans have begun to implement the kickstart of our economy. It is also important to keep in mind that a one-size-fits all approach does not work for a state like ours. It could be possible that differing timelines would be needed when considering reopening businesses.
We were pleased that Dr. Shah was able to finally release real-time numbers. We believe this is a step in the right direction and hope that these actual numbers will become a routine part of the briefings. Another important piece of information we have been asking about is how many individuals have been tested in total. It is beneficial to have this information and are pleased it has been shared with the public. We believe it is important for the people of Maine to have all the pertinent information that they can in order to manage their own lives. Understanding that numbers may be used by some to diminish their social distancing, we believe it is important that we trust our citizens to follow all CDC recommendations and use common sense, just as you trust your staff and offices.
As you have said numerous times, we are all in this together and there is a wealth of knowledge and experience within the legislative body. Just as our caucuses worked with your Commissioner of the Department of Financial Services to put forth a Supplemental Budget to meet the unforeseen needs this pandemic would require and worked with the majority party to pass other pieces of legislation in relation to those same needs, we offer our services to do so now in order to address the impact the pandemic has had on our State and its citizens.
Respectfully and wishes for continued good health,
Sen. Dana Dow Rep. Kathleen Dillingham Senate Minority Leader House Minority Leader
Sen. Jeffrey Timberlake Rep. Trey Stewart
Cc: U.S. President Donald Trump