Congratulations, dear reader. Using my reality bending power to create alternative universes, I have now conjured a world in which you are reading this column in the Blaine House, and you are the governor of Maine.
Everything else is the same. Same history. Same first year in office. Same COVID-19 pandemic sweeping the globe. The only difference is that now you are in the unfortunate position of having to make decisions.
As your new advisor, I’d like to take a moment to talk about the decisions that are ahead for you. Go ahead and take a seat, governor, this will not be a very pleasant meeting.
First, let’s be honest with ourselves here. The decisions you will make in the next few days and weeks are not going to be clear cut. These are not choices between bad options and good options. These aren’t even going to be choices between bad options and slightly less bad options. You are going to be choosing between awful, and awful.
As the chief executive of Maine’s government, you have many considerations to balance in your mind.
You have the protection of the health of Maine people to worry about, and you happen to preside over the oldest state in the union during a time in which a new disease is spreading that is the most dangerous to those over the age of 60, and those with underlying health conditions.
You also have the economic vitality of the state to worry about, and Maine — as a state heavily based in tourism and service sector jobs — is uniquely susceptible to the economic shutdowns being ordered all across the country.
You are also, as a public servant, duty bound to guard the civil rights of the citizens you represent in government. You swore an oath to uphold and defend the constitutions of the United States and of Maine, and any restriction on clearly defined rights held by Maine citizens is not only damaging, but precedent setting.
Governor, we know that if you snap your fingers and tell everyone things are back to normal, more — many more — people will get COVID-19, and yes more of them will die. Hospitals will likely get overwhelmed, and the inability of the system to respond will end up creating a humanitarian crisis.
We also know, governor, that if you do not begin to loosen the tight grip of quarantine, Maine’s economy will be obliterated and may never fully recover.
Already 76,000 Mainers have filed for unemployment in just three weeks, and a lot more job losses are coming. Businesses are closing. Restaurants are shuttering. And many seeking relief are finding that the the promised help from the federal government isn’t really much of an option for them.
Perhaps you might think that both of those scenarios are bad, but that economic implosion isn’t as bad of a problem as the spreading virus. Unfortunately, it is every bit as bad, because of the crushing social toll this experience will leave in its wake.
How many Maine businesses will be gone and will never come back no matter how much money governments try to use to save them? How many marriages will end due to the stress of multiple job losses and financial calamity? How many children will be left behind their peers as they struggle to catch back up to friends who adjusted better to learning from home?
How much of an increase will we see in persistent and long lasting depression? How much will drug use increase? How many new alcoholics will be created when unemployment hits 20 or 30 percent? How much will suicides increase?
Every negative consequence of the complete shutdown of society will then lead to additional problems that compound themselves, making everything worse. The consequences of that are dire, and will be long lasting.
So, we’re going to need some bold decision making here, governor. But if I may offer a suggestion, perhaps consider balancing these concerns, rather than simply choosing one path or another.
Perhaps maintain stringent restrictions and quarantines on those belonging to the most at risk groups while simultaneously opening the state back up gently. Keep encouraging social distancing. Keep telling us to limit contact, and even work from home if we can. Keep restrictions on large gatherings.
But in other areas, allow the rest of us to begin to get things going again. Carefully, and with guidance and caution, but with a mind toward preserving our livelihoods in some way. To do otherwise would be malpractice.
The decision is yours, governor.