To Governor Mills regarding “Stay Safer at Home” plan during COVID-19

First, I want to commend you on standing up and doing what you feel is best. I know it’s not easy, in these times of heightened divisiveness to rise above the insults and vitriol from all sides and stay the course. I lean conservative in my views but I also understand that socio economic issues are multi-layered and complex and not easily or quickly solved. And so I’ve struggled to offer these suggestions as succinctly as possible. I know you’ve got a lot to do and I won’t waste your time with too much prose and only a little personal agenda.

My overall message and perspective is that Maine (being a rural, spread-out environment overall, with a “built in” propensity for social distancing) is the perfect environment for a demonstration of the trust in the discretion and good sense of its citizens and small business owners.

For the most part, I’ve witnessed nothing but safe, sensible behavior as I’m out and about. I arrived at Home Depot several days ago and saw a full parking lot, but the people in the store mostly wore masks or at least kept their distance. Additionally, those very people most “at risk” are self-governing by staying at home, and engaging in distancing behaviors such as ordering take-out and having less at-risk family or friends do their shopping for them. And the VERY highest “at risk” folks have been doing that for years anyway. Because we’ve been “practicing” for nearly two months, the behavior of social distancing and washing hands and other safety measures is largely ingrained, and thus I believe we can be “trusted” with a bit more leeway.

Aside from Cumberland County, we’re largely rural, and as such we could be allowed far more discretion than a more urban area. We’re already a conservative cautious bunch. In Kennebec County, we’ve only observed 104 cases, and 36 recoveries. On a normal day, many of us, especially retired or self-employed, don’t come in contact with more than a dozen people in the course of a week anyway. I do realize it’s difficult to allow freedom in one county or area and have more rigid restrictions an hour away but I believe that allowing more discretion would send several positive messages, the two most relevant of which are:

1.) Our government trusts us to do the right thing. In an age where government mistrust (both ways) is the order of the day, this would be a very “out of the box” approach and would pay immeasurable dividends for the future successes of the initiator.

2.) It would be very encouraging to, and increase the rate of survival for, many small businesses who rely on foot traffic such as restaurants, salons, smaller shops, etc.

Even in Waterville, one of the biggest cities in Kennebec County, you rarely see “packed stores” anyway. I can’t tell you the number of restaurant workers whose livelihoods would be saved if they could start serving now, a month ahead of your timeline. A simple reservation system and maximum capacity restriction would suffice when combined with the already in place “self-policing” of our most at-risk. Add to that the fact that during these times of economic uncertainty there will already be in place downward pressure on dining & shopping, which aside from groceries and basic supplies is a luxury that people are hesitant on which to splurge right now. Hence a bit of risk mitigation is already in place with people being a bit more conservative with their money, and the very conservative “old Yankee” caution of most of the population of Maine.

Many of we residents take vacations “in state” at OOB and other coastal and mountain locations June through August. I think that the opening of the hotels, resorts and campgrounds NOW instead of June & July would be a low-risk way to encourage our population, much the same as opening the smaller businesses. Campgrounds have a built in safety net of separate personal structures (tents and campers) as well as having very little facilities to sanitize. Campgrounds are miniature neighborhoods with “stay safer at home” already built in. Beachfront hotels in OOB and other regions are also reasonable risks as the beach is a wide open area, enabling very easy “social distancing”.

I do recognize that you are attempting to draw a line between what Maine residents can do and what visitors can do and I certainly commend that, and because of that distinction I believe that we residents have a little more margin of error that is not yet reflected in this plan.

In closing, I’d like to address and issue that strikes closer to home: that of landlord tenant relations and the executive order regarding evictions and rental assistance. For the most part, rental units in our communities are owned by “salt of the earth mom and pop” types who own a handful of rental units and earn less in salary than some of our tenants. The barrier to entry in our business is high: Down payments of 25% are the norm. Roughly fifty percent of our perspective “customers” lie to us at some level to gain entrance to our rental units, and one bad tenant can cost thousands in lost rent, damages, cleaning, and even legal fees (most of which we are prohibited from collecting). We own 5 buildings, totaling 29 units and have at least 3 tenants who earn far more than we do. Our “take home pay” puts us barely into the mid point of middle-class. Now let me be clear; we’re among the more fortunate. As of May 1st we have not had a single missed payment, and we’re 100% rented. But frankly, we’re the rule and not the exception. Most of my colleagues have had very little disruption thus far. Now, although I understand the importance of not having a slew of homeless people introduced into society during this precarious time, I believe that the current executive order unnecessarily endangers the livelihood of many hard-working middle class landlords. One unintended consequence of this order is that the very people who are financially unsound and irresponsible are given the upper hand. (Those who would have trouble paying rent after missing one or two paychecks.) I do appreciate the landlord assistance plan of receiving a one-time $500 assistance check. This is certainly a big help but also places unfair restrictions on collecting the difference later. I believe that some allowance of discretion should be given to landlords. We know which of our tenants should be assisted and which ones are just taking advantage. This executive order implies that we’re not capable of such discretion. It protects a few at the cost of many. Additionally, the wording is grossly misunderstood by the very group of people most likely to take unfair advantage of the order. The message received by them is “Governor Mills says I don’t have to pay rent.” You and I know that’s not the spirit of the order in the least but the very people who don’t have the sense to save up for a rainy day are the ones who don’t have the capacity to understand the intent and content of the executive order. Further, to postpone court evictions is largely unnecessary. Despite the wording of landlord-tenant law, it takes roughly double the stated time to get an unwilling-to-move tenant out of an apartment. (Roughly two months from first late notice until execution of writ). Our hands are already tied in many ways, and this executive order all but guarantees an unfair share of hardship for those landlords who serve the very class of constituent the law is intended to protect and constitute the second largest industry in Maine.

Thank you for all you are doing. I hope you take these words in the spirit of hope and optimism in which they were intended.
Ken LaVoie

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