Our Maine economy is in big trouble. More than 100,000 family members, friends and neighbors have lost their jobs over the last five weeks. A short time ago, Maine’s unemployment rate was at a 50-year low, there were more jobs than available workers, and wages were rising faster than at any other time over the past decade.
The national economy, which greatly impacts Maine’s well-being, is also in dire straits. Thirty million Americans have filed for unemployment since their companies were asked to temporarily close to slow the spread of the highly infectious coronavirus.
In this newspaper on Sunday, state economists agreed with an outside study that indicated Maine could get hurt more from the COVID-19 recession than any other state. That’s because our businesses tend to be small, and we have lots of self-employed workers. Most don’t have the cash reserves to weather this devastating lockdown.
Maine’s small-business economy is also heavily reliant on close one-to-one social interaction. Our legendary customer service at restaurants, shops and hotels might scare potential customers who want to keep their distance. Maine’s economic freeze is preventing us from adjusting to this new environment and getting ready for the critical summer and fall tourist season.
To make matters worse, Maine’s high taxes and tough regulations have chased away most of our good-paying manufacturing jobs. For some of the same reasons, we don’t have enough white collar technology and professional service jobs which can operate from home.
On top of all this, Maine has the oldest average age in the nation. Our many seniors are important consumers in our economy, but they’re the most susceptible to the coronavirus infection. If they stay homebound for an extended period, the Oxford Economics forecast might come true – one in three Mainers losing their jobs before this recession ends.
This debilitating lockdown can’t go on forever. Our economy must start reopening in a thoughtful and measured way, and soon. The longer it’s shuttered, the more businesses will disappear, the more jobs will be lost and the more suffering by our families. Here are a few common-sense steps to begin reopening:
• First, all hands on deck at the Maine Department of Labor to process the unemployment claims for thousands of self-employed workers and independent contractors. These fellow Mainers haven’t had paychecks for six weeks. This is unacceptable. How do they buy groceries and pay the mortgage? Be creative: Redirect enough of the at-home 13,000 state employees to sit at temporary desks 10 feet apart at, say, the Augusta Civic Center and manually process the claims and write the checks for their fellow Mainers in distress. Get it done with no excuses.
• Second, open up all of our 48 spectacular state parks and historic sites, including ones on the coast. Let the kids run around in the healthy fresh air, and keep Mom and Dad from going batty being inside with them all day. Baxter State Park spans more than 200,000 acres of easy hiking trails, wilderness campsites and wide open ponds. I’m sure a couple thousand cooped-up state employees can be quickly trained to monitor traffic and social distancing at these special outdoor recreation areas.
• Third, allow our rural areas to carefully get back to normal life. Piscataquis County has had one confirmed COVID-19 case, who recovered. Its land mass is almost one-half the size of New Hampshire. Its population is 4,378 compared to New Hampshire’s 1.4 million.
Down East Washington County has had two cases – both recovered. Its land area is one-third the size of New Hampshire with as many citizens as Newport – Maine’s 108th largest town.
Most of Maine is rural, and it always struggles economically. There’s no reason why it can’t cautiously reopen more quickly than Gov. Mills’ recent plan. Let our rural residents go back to work and support their families. Two-thirds of the coronavirus cases in Maine are in the much more populated southern Cumberland and York counties. We can diligently protect our most at-risk seniors in nursing facilities and veterans homes and still open up the countryside.
• Fourth, fully reopen our health care system. Doctors and dentists aren’t seeing patients, and our hospitals are almost empty. Thank God there has not been a stampede of COVID-19 patients overwhelming the system. In Maine, we have 36 hospitals with approximately 3,600 beds. As of this writing, 39 coronavirus patients are hospitalized. It’s dangerous for Mainers to not be able to receive the mammograms, cardiac care, chemotherapy and other important procedures and treatments they need.
Gov. Mills must explain to the people of Maine the logic behind her plan and timeline to end the shutdown. It’s time to allow businesses to carefully reopen, and let Mainers get on with their lives.