The Mills plan for reopening the economy is no plan at all

When a crisis happens, I think most of us try our best to band together and be on the same team.

In the year 2000, this country lived through one of the most bitter and miserable elections in American history. In the end, after a month of legal battles and uncertainty, George W. Bush became president. To say he inherited a divided country would be an understatement.

And yet, in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, Bush’s approval rating in Gallup surveys reached as high as 90 percent. A whole lot of people who hated everything the man stood for, and a whole lot more who didn’t vote for him, immediately lined up to support their president in a time of crisis.

Generally speaking, this is a good thing about human nature. When the chips are really down, we put away a lot of the ridiculous pettiness that defines us in normal times, and we try to all push the rock in the same direction.

Here in Maine, this is why Gov. Janet Mills has seen a recent bump in approval ratings. In the spring of 2019, polling firm Critical Insights put her approval rating at 47 percent, while in October, Morning Consult had it sitting at 46 percent.

Last month, Critical Insights published a poll showing her approval rating had risen to about 60 percent.

Maine Gov. Janet Mills speaks about a new stay-at-home order and plans for gradually reopening Maine businesses at a news conference in Augusta on Tuesday. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

I’m not immune to this sentiment. To be perfectly frank and honest, in the early and middle stages of the state’s response to COVID-19, I had very little to say in the way of criticism of Mills.

It is true, there are many decisions she made along the way that I disagreed with, but I believe she is a good person who has a lot of bad choices to pick between, and the last thing she or anyone else needed through those early days was a bunch of grief from someone like me.

However, I began to grow rather uncomfortable with that silence when more time passed. Overly broad orders that curtailed the constitutionally protected civil rights of Maine citizens was a major mistake in my opinion, as was the threat of fines and arrests for non-compliance.

Now, in the past two weeks the release of her initial “vision” for the state’s reopening, followed by the four-point phased reopening plan has caused me to lose my patience with what I consider a lack of leadership coming out of the Blaine House.

Mills is not taking the social costs of the economic cataclysm they are creating seriously, and it has led to her prioritization of heavy-handed, internally inconsistent and illogical attempts to control behavior, to the detriment of every core area of Maine’s social and economic life.

This isn’t just about money. As we sit and debate when Maine should open, many of us — Mills included — have fallen into an insidious trap. Positive COVID-19 tests and fatalities are tangible, easy to understand things. You can clearly identify them. They are simple, uncomplicated and scary.

But how do you quantify the impacts of 26 million people being out of work, 100,000 of which are in Maine? The truth is, we can’t understand it as easily, because so many of those social costs are intangible, or difficult to even identify. But they are real, and they are devastating. Depression, suicide, poverty, destitution, broken families, children falling through the cracks, and utterly destroyed lives.

No government program or rescue package can truly mitigate what we are doing.

A leader in a crisis like this needs to be able to balance those costs with the need for protecting public health.

I think it is possible, but issuing a plan that says barber shops, hair salons and pet groomers can open in May, but nail technicians can’t open up until June and tattoo and piercing parlors can’t open up until July is not a serious plan. Telling restaurants they can open in June, but bars can open in July is not a plan. Telling the state that Walmart, Target and Home Depot can remain open, while general purpose retail stores can not open until June is not a plan.

And it certainly isn’t a plan when the language contained inside lacks specific metrics, or concrete targets. The maddening ambiguity and vagaries in her plan leave the process open ended, so that Mills can use whatever she wants to justify any action she wants going forward.

No one — repeat, no one — is arguing that things should “go back to normal,” immediately, or that everything should open at once. And everyone that I know has been trying to give the governor as much latitude as possible. But enough is enough. This plan is not a plan at all, and we deserve better.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.