Editorials from around New England:
Epidemic of finger-pointing does no good in battle to curb coronavirus pandemic
In times of crisis, no matter what industry one works in, effective leaders seek remedies to “fix” the problems at hand. The leaders should assemble teams to identify the root causes and the effects of the problems. Once they are identified, the team should develop and recommend plans for how best to “fix” the effects and then develop plans to ensure the causes do not occur again.
Effective leaders will listen to the advice of the teams and then, using their best judgement, implement the plans to “fix” the problems. Effective leaders must be flexible and willing to amend the plans if they are upended by factors that were not known when the plans were established. Effective leaders should also seek the path forward that will have the least impact on day-to-day business operations.
Identifying the root cause does not mean pointing fingers. Identifying the root cause means determining what happened to cause the crisis.
Yes, those responsible for creating the crisis should be held accountable for their actions, but effective leaders should not attempt to blame in a public forum an individual or individuals for causing the crisis. When leaders publicly single out individuals for creating a crisis, those leaders inevitably will become ineffective. They will lose the support and respect of the individuals they are leading.
President Trump has assembled a team to tackle the coronavirus crisis. It appears he has heeded the advice of the team (even though at times, his words do not seem to align with the team) and implemented plans based on its advice.
Unfortunately, a significant number of our leaders (including Trump) at all levels and those in the media, are stumbling over each other in an attempt to place blame for the crisis. They do this in an attempt to score political points, and gain an advantage for their respective political parties and their agendas.
Recently, Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., stated Trump was to blame for the crisis because he did not act quickly enough to stop the spread of the virus. Murphy based his assertion on a briefing the president provided in February to members of Congress.
Hindsight always is 20/20 and is not helpful when trying to “fix” the effect of a crisis.
Now is not the time for political posturing, or for the media to stir up more angst and fear. Now is the time for everyone to put their political agendas aside (including the media) and work together in fighting this crisis.
One way to make sure voting takes place
Newburyport Daily News
With continuing uncertainty about how long the coronavirus pandemic will keep Bay State residents battened down, two lawmakers are looking ahead to the fall elections and proposing a solution. The legislation, filed by Sen. Becca Rausch, D-Needham, and Rep. Adrian Madaro, an East Boston Democrat, would have ballots, with prepaid return envelopes, mailed to every registered voter for the Sept. 1 primary and Nov. 3 general election. For the primary, enrolled voters would receive the ballot of their party but independents would have to request a specific party ballot at least 35 days before the primary.
Under the proposal, polling places would still be open so people could vote in person if they chose.
This vote-by-mail idea follows the lines of how absentee ballots are handled now, but it would expand the option by putting the ballots in the mailboxes of more voters.
If health concerns about the coronavirus persist into September, this legislation would provide a viable option to ensure registered voters can vote without risking their health and that of others. The idea - which is still only in the discussion stage - could be a problem if ballots mailed to voters’ home addresses ended up in the hands of people other than the intended recipients. But the concept of voting by mail works well in other states, so Massachusetts could study the best practices elsewhere and make a system that guarantees the right to vote while preventing voter fraud as much as possible.
Since the legislation provides for polling places to remain open, it also calls for the state to provide personal protective gear for poll workers. It also would permanently declare the November election day a legal holiday, further encouraging people to take the time to vote and highlighting how important voting is in our democracy.
The legislation, S2912 / H5026, was unveiled this week, but lawmakers would be wise to tackle this important issue early to make sure Massachusetts has the voting process figured out well before the first ballots are counted this fall.
Sununu takes a wrong turn on relief funds
In the name of efficiency, Gov. Chris Sununu is seeking to substitute autocracy for democracy and accord to himself sole power to determine how and to whom $1.25 billion in federal COVID-19 emergency relief funds will be distributed.
The state’s judicial system, which referees disputes between the other two branches of government, should reject as unconstitutional the governor’s attempted power grab.
Sununu has done a truly admirable job of leading New Hampshire as it battles the coronavirus pandemic. His decisions, in consultation with state epidemiologist Dr. Benjamin Chan and others, have been sound, his communications with citizens clear and concise. And we applaud his choice to join with his fellow governors in saying that decisions of when to allow non-essential businesses to reopen and people to gather will be made by the states, not the president.
Unfortunately, the governor’s contention that emergency powers allow him to relegate the Legislature, whose duty it is to raise, accept and spend money, to an advisory role is needlessly divisive and comes at a time when unity is called for.
For decades, it has been the responsibility of the bipartisan Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee to rule on whether to accept, and whether to spend, funds that come to the state outside the normal budget process. The committee is willing to meet daily to do so if necessary. Nothing in law or history suggests that the committee cedes that authority to the governor during an emergency. In fact, the state’s civil emergencies law says just the opposite. The governor can spend money only in such cases “with the advice and consent of the Fiscal Committee.”
Sununu claims that another law, enacted in 2002 in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, trumps the law that requires Fiscal Committee consent. That is a wishful reading of the statute, one that ignores the constitutional requirement that the powers of the respective branches of government be kept as separate as possible.
Rather than seek advice from the Fiscal Committee, the governor has opted to create, in the name of expediency, an eight-member advisory board, five of whose members are current members of the Fiscal Committee. The newly constituted committee is unnecessary and redundant.
The Joint Fiscal Committee exists to perform precisely the task of overseeing incoming funds and spending. Its members are experienced at doing so. The courts should reject the governor’s attempt to use the pandemic to increase his own power.
At times, as in the governor’s decision to spend to secure personal protection equipment for those on the front lines, speed is essential. The committee could, for example, give advance approval that would permit the governor to spend say $5 million or $10 million in an emergency without legislative consent; $100 million or $1 billion is a different story.
New Hampshire has the most representative legislature on the planet. It is the voice of the people, not the governor, that should decide how the relief money is spent.
Some hopeful numbers at last
The Providence Journal
People are still justifiably scared of COVID-19, but there are finally some encouraging signs.
On Thursday, President Trump told reporters, “the data suggests that nationwide we have passed the peak on new cases.” He praised the extreme social distancing adopted by Americans, following guidance by his team and the nation’s governors.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, meanwhile, presented numerous charts showing the disease’s impact had evidently peaked in his state. Though he seemed terrified earlier he would not have enough ventilators to handle the crisis, Mr. Cuomo announced Wednesday he was sending surplus ones to other states. Roughly half of the nation’s deaths from COVID-19 have occurred in New York.
In Rhode Island, unfortunately, deaths and hospitalizations continued to rise, though more gradually than initially feared.
The total hospitalized on Thursday was 245, with 61 in intensive care. Though challenging, that is still a far cry from the number of hospital beds Gov. Gina Raimondo projects the state will need: 2,250 to 4,300.
Clearly, national models used by the Centers for Disease Control were wildly inaccurate - simply because nobody knew how dangerous the disease might prove. Initial projections of 1.5 million to 2.2 million deaths in America were dramatically scaled back.
In late March, the president and his people were putting out still-sobering numbers, showing COVID-19 deaths could hit 100,000 to 240,000 nationwide, even with mitigation.
The Centers for Disease Control said Wednesday the death total had reached a far lower 24,582. Numbers now include people scientists think probably had the infection, not just those verified through tests.
That would put the estimated death total over the next several weeks in the range of a bad flu season. COVID-19, though, worries health experts much more because it seems to spread easily (including by people showing no symptoms) and there is no vaccine or reliable cure.
Few doubt that Americans’ acute social distancing has helped “flatten the curve,” preventing our health system from being overwhelmed. That system is now much better equipped to handle future cases. That was the goal - not the impossible task of preventing everyone from becoming infected.
It is far from over, of course. The people of Rhode Island, in particular, living between the hot spots of New York and Boston, “have to watch it. They have to be very careful,” President Trump said Wednesday.
Still, as the national peak is possibly reached, people are increasingly looking at other data: the impact of social distancing on our society.
Social scientists say the kind of unemployment numbers we are now facing point to anguish that produces suicides and drug overdoses in the tens of thousands, probably eclipsing deaths from the virus.
All this will put tremendous pressure on our society to strike a balance. While we seemed to flatten the curve, we cannot hermetically seal people off from COVID-19.
Since society will collapse without people working and producing, we are going to have to move the nation toward employment in the weeks ahead.
Unemployment claim woes demand immediate fix
The Vermont Department of Labor is facing what’s likely the greatest challenge of its existence: Handling a deluge of unemployment claims for workers who have been laid off, furloughed or cannot work due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Vermonters do understand the department is between a rock and a hard place.
There were 70,000 new claims in the past month alone, and the department was simply not equipped to handle that volume. Its computer system is 30 years old. Moving the initial claims process online and adding employees has helped, but it’s still not nearly enough.
This is not meant to sound harsh. But the time for excuses is over. This simply must be fixed, as quickly as humanly possible.
Vermonters and their employers paid into the state unemployment system with the expectation that those funds would be there when tough times came around. Instead, they’re getting busy signals, pre-recorded messages saying the department can’t take their call, and most crucially, no checks or direct deposits.
The Department of Labor, and Gov. Phil Scott, know they must do better. To their credit, they have owned up and said as much. They’re as aware of the problems and hardships this is causing as we’re all aware they face a difficult task.
But accountability is cold comfort for Vermonters who have bills to pay and mouths to feed. They need money, now.
“I’ve never heard the level of desperation from constituents that I’m hearing now,” state Sen. Debbie Ingram, D-Chittenden, said Tuesday, according to Seven Days.
Some of that frustration boiled over at an online state Senate session Tuesday, as members relayed story after story from shaken and angered constituents.
State Sen. Robert Starr, D-Essex/Orleans, suggested that the state send money to claimants now and figure out the math at a later date.
Told that wasn’t likely, given the Department of Labor’s technical constraints, Starr responded with a blast of Vermont no-nonsense candor.
“That’s baloney,” he said, according to Seven Days. “Tell ‘em to get the frickin’ checks out the door. Get it settled up later.”
Whether or not that’s realistic, it’s hard not to agree with Starr’s tone.
Gov. Scott’s performance so far in responding to this pandemic has been largely excellent. He’s been steady at the wheel, made sound decisions, and made himself and his administration regularly available to the media. Handed an unfathomable crisis and a leadership vacuum in Washington, he’s stepped up, as have many governors across the country.
But no one is going to remember any of that if they’re going hungry, or falling behind on bills, because they can’t reach a human being at the claims office in Montpelier.
Outbreak no excuse for shutting out Maine’s public
Portland Press Herald
Just like nursing homes and other congregate settings where physical distancing is an inherent challenge, prisons are extremely vulnerable to outbreaks of COVID-19. How Maine responds to that vulnerability is a key policy question of great public interest – it is, quite literally, a matter of life and death.
Yet when the Mills administration briefed state legislators Wednesday, the public was left out. And it wasn’t the first time.
During a crisis in which Gov. Mills is taking unprecedented, though so far prudent, steps to stop the spread of COVID-19, it is important her administration operates out in the open. Such transparency gives weight to her emergency orders, and allows the public to gauge whether government is acting in its best interests.
In this case, the administration failed. On Wednesday, Corrections Commissioner Randy Liberty held two briefings – one for Democratic legislators and one for Republican lawmakers, perhaps to bypass open meeting laws – and did not provide public notice or allow a reporter to listen in to the virtual meetings, the Press Herald’s Megan Gray reported. The meetings were not recorded.
On Thursday, a spokeswoman in the governor’s office told the Press Herald that the Department of Labor and the Maine Center for Disease Control also have held private briefings with lawmakers as they struggled to answer questions while the Legislature is adjourned – nine meetings in total. She said the briefings would be suspended until the administration can find a transparent way to interact with legislators.
After the briefings, Liberty did take questions from Gray, and he shared a general update on what the Department of Corrections is doing in response to the outbreak. Mills’ office also released the presentation Liberty gave to lawmakers Wednesday.
But that’s no substitute. If the Legislature were in session, Liberty’s briefings likely would have taken place in a committee room. Those meetings are open to the public by law, and for good reason – if legislators are going to question the executive branch, the public and the press have an interest in what is being said.
In this particular case, the public needs to know that the Department of Corrections, and the legislators who provide oversight of the department, understand the threat the outbreak poses to prisons, and are taking steps to alleviate it.
Jails and prisons throughout the country are experiencing outbreaks. A COVID-19 cluster at Cook County Jail in Illinois had sickened 181 detainees and more than 200 corrections officers as of Wednesday. The number of cases in the federal Bureau of Prisons went from one infection to 284 and eight deaths within two weeks. In Texas, thousands of detainees may have been exposed to the novel coronavirus.
In recognition of this threat, there have been calls to greatly reduce the number of people detained in jails and prisons. On Wednesday, the Department of Corrections told WMTW that Maine’s prison population has fallen 7 percent in response to COVID-19, compared to a 37 percent decline in the jail population.
Mainers deserve to hear how Liberty addresses that issue and others with lawmakers, just as they deserve to hear how state agencies are handling the rapidly increasing number of unemployed workers, or the rising number of cases of COVID-19 in nursing homes in the state.
The public’s right to know what their government is doing is essential to making sure the government does it right. COVID-19 doesn’t change that.
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