May Day brings a mayday for Maine’s Economy

It’s a mayday on May Day.

Seven weeks ago, on March 15, Gov. Janet Mills declared a state of emergency related to the outbreak of the novel coronavirus. Her first steps were brilliant; there were no heavy-handed orders, just encouragement and suggestions. Mainers heeded the call and, working together, took necessary steps.

The Legislature quickly went in and out of session. They tweaked Maine’s unemployment system to not harm employers who were forced to lay people off temporarily in response to the health crisis. They fought the urge to spend theoretical tax revenue surpluses, instead taking a wait-and-see approach.

Mills kept the pace. She ultimately decided to restrict some business operations and encouraged people to stay home. In order to keep grocery stores going, she asked them for ideas on how they might operate safely. Businesses responded and a plan was put into place.

So far, so good.

But this week, she had her first stumble. The administration released its “reopening” strategy on Tuesday. There was some good news. With proper precautions, Maine’s outdoor recreation economy — notably, golf courses — can open back up. People can venture out to get groomed, both for themselves and their pets. An eminently reasonable approach.

A couple walks by a row of closed motels on Wednesday in Old Orchard Beach. Gov. Janet Mills on Tuesday announced plans to allow the gradual reopening of businesses closed by the coronavirus pandemic. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

Yet, looking forward, the remainder of the “plan” deviated from everything Mills has spoken about. She (rightly) has continually assailed arbitrary lines based on the calendar. Instead, she said data and research would inform future steps.

So color me among the surprised when seemingly arbitrary dates — June 1, July 1 — were associated with her “Stage 2” and “Stage 3” re-opening strategies. Further, we’re seven weeks into this official “state of emergency.” Making plans now for what will be appropriate in eight weeks is asinine; the situation is far too dynamic to set things into stone.

That is why the “reopening” plan was met with a “mayday” from many Maine businesses. Sitting idly by while mortgages, property taxes, insurance bills, and myriad other costs pile up will take them no farther than the scene of the crash. Mayday.

It is undisputed that public health professionals will recommend continued stringent measures. That is quite literally their job. But we elect officials to listen to the input of varied advisors and make the best possible comprehensive decision.

Empirically, it is highly likely that smoking will kill more people than the novel coronavirus this year. But you can still get a pack of Marlboro Reds at the checkout during quarantine. Obesity makes people much more likely to die. But cookies and sugary soda are still available on store shelves.

Officials have decided — rightly or wrongly — that the public health risk of these products is outweighed by other factors. Maybe it is the tax revenue generated by their sales. Maybe it is the freedom offered to people to make poor choices.

Whatever the rationale, that same calculus must occur with the coronavirus. It is pretty dark to weigh human lives against…anything. But it is the job.

That doesn’t mean hands should simply be thrown up and we just wait for the inevitable deaths to follow. There are untold amounts of creativity in the private sector. Challenging them to find ways they might operate safely is the right approach instead of telling them to wait until July 1.

We need to generate economic activity to have tax revenue for Augusta to spend on its response efforts, let alone countless other priorities. But we can’t generate economic activity if businesses are forced to remain closed for another eight weeks.

The Mills administration should walk back their announced dates and lean forward to work with businesses on a quicker, bespoke reopening strategy. Science should inform the risk profiles. For example, the distinction between a hairdresser (opened May 1) and a piercing salon (restricted until July 1) seems artificial, at best. And businesses should respond to the defined risks with their proposed strategies to mitigate the threat.

If Mills is at the helm of the ship of state, she should hear the “mayday” call of Maine businesses. When you hear an emergency, you should change course and render aid. She had a strong, measured response to the start of this crisis. Hopefully, she will find it again.

Michael Cianchette

About Michael Cianchette

Michael Cianchette was the chief counsel to Gov. Paul LePage from 2012-2013 and deputy counsel from 2011-2012. A Navy reservist, he was deployed to Afghanistan from 2013-2014 as a trainer and adviser to the Afghan National Police. He is an alumnus of the Leadership Maine program and holds a BA in economics and political science from Boston College along with a JD and an MBA from Suffolk University. He works as in-house counsel and financial manager for a number of affiliated companies in southern Maine.