Editorial Roundup: New England

Recent editorials of regional and national interest from New England’s newspapers:

CONNECTICUT:

Connecticut is barely holding its own in the battle against COVID-19; we could be winning

Hartford Courant

Jan. 17

In assessing Connecticut’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, the contrast between the spring of 2020 and these last few months has been dramatic.

In the spring, faced with a virus whose lethal power was clear, the state shut down. Led by Gov. Ned Lamont, who quickly empaneled a team of infectious disease experts to help guide him, businesses were told to have their employees work from home. Restaurants, bars and theaters were closed. Schools shifted to online learning.

Connecticut — not unlike other states — didn’t move fast enough. We soon became one of the deadliest states in the nation. But in time, the lockdown worked. The curve flattened. As we practiced rigorous social distancing and stayed home, the dying slowed. We saved each other.

Now, faced with a second wave of coronavirus infections that is no less lethal than the first, the response has been profoundly different. Stores are open, people are going out to dinner, many employees are back in the office, schools are back in session.

The results were predictable.

The positive test rate in Connecticut climbed above 10 percent Tuesday — the highest in eight months, while on Wednesday we recorded our highest single-day death total since May. The question of how severe Connecticut’s second wave would be has been answered. On May 20, the day the first phase of the reopening plan took effect, deaths stood at 3,529. Now they are above 6,500. Arguably, what’s changed the most between the first wave and the second is our collective willingness to tolerate a given level of sickness and death.

The reason for the governor’s less restrictive approach is clear, if not overtly stated. The state has avoided tightening its rules to avert an economic downturn. The spring lockdown forced tens of thousands out of work and led to the closure of restaurants and other small businesses. The sight of hundreds of our neighbors lining up at food-sharing events speaks to the level of need.

Now, with the economy open again and rebounding, we’re out and about. We’re gathering. We’re taking chances. And coronavirus is spreading. Yes, a vaccine is here, and thousands have been vaccinated. But we are still months away from wide-scale impact, and yet there has been little talk of further rollbacks as the situation deteriorates.

That’s a problem. If you don’t believe the data, take a drive around the state. Bars and breweries — so long as they serve a sandwich or two — are booming. The parking lots at big-box stores on any given weekend day are jammed. College students are throwing parties. To be fair, many business owners are rigorous about safety measures. Others, less so.

But the measures we’ve taken are not effective enough, and it’s time for the Gov. Lamont we saw last spring to reassert himself, to direct a step back so we can soon take three or four steps forward. To minimize economic fallout, the governor should consider imposing a limited, 30-day pause in a number of areas:

- Demand that all businesses that can operate remotely do so.

- Reduce indoor dining to 25 percent capacity or strictly enforce compliance of existing limits through the use of state resources. The towns are not built to do that.

- Delay the beginning of the high school sports season until the 30-day pause is over in mid-February.

- Delay the beginning of the spring semester at UConn until the 30-day pause is over in mid-February and ask other colleges to do the same.

- Work with religious leaders, funeral directors and others on further restricting indoor gatherings.

- Reduce allowed capacity at retail establishments where appropriate and enforce those limits.

The battle against the coronavirus is far from over, and we need to acknowledge the reality of where we are — and how much longer this will last. Infection rates are skyrocketing; deaths are climbing. We shouldn’t need the sight of critically ill patients waiting in ambulances for space to open up in an ER to take decisive action.

We have an opportunity — right now — to take a reasonable step back that could have an exponential impact. Thirty days would give the health care system time to roll out the vaccine to thousands more Connecticut residents at the same time that further social distancing measures would slow the pace of infections. The time for Lamont to act is now.

In the spring, we traded livelihoods for lives. Now we are trading lives for livelihoods. It is time to reset the balance. It’s time for us, once again, to save each other.

Online: http://bit.ly/3iABNyh

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MAINE:

When local control loses control of basic facts and state law

Bangor Daily News

Jan. 21

The Piscataquis County commissioners — James White, Andrew Torbett and Wayne Erkkinen — recently passed a “resolution of protest” decrying actions taken by Gov. Janet Mills during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, an indisputable public health emergency that has now claimed over 400,000 lives nationwide and over 500 here in Maine.

We don’t take issue with local officials criticizing the state’s chief executive. If they have concerns about how state policies are impacting their constituents, it’s their right and responsibility to try to have those concerns heard. But concerns about local control are not an excuse to lose control of basic facts. That’s what these three county officials have done with this embarrassing document.

“Whereas, the Governor has repeatedly refused to allow the legislature to convene, review, and address the impact of her rulings upon the free people the legislature represents,” the commissioners say at one point in their resolution. This is factually and constitutionally bunk.

Mills has not refused to allow the Legislature to convene. In fact, the Legislature is back in session now, as stipulated by the timing set in the Maine Constitution. Under that same constitution, both Maine’s governor and lawmakers have the ability to convene a special session. While Mills didn’t reconvene the Legislature in 2020, she didn’t prevent lawmakers from doing so, either.

It was the Legislature, specifically Republican legislators, who twice declined to reconvene in 2020 after bipartisan agreement to adjourn early in March at the outset of the pandemic. There was plenty of finger pointing between lawmakers over that failure to reconvene, but it wasn’t Mills who “refused to allow” them to return to work in Augusta.

People can take issue with the steps Mills has taken to slow the spread of COVID-19. They can raise concerns about the state statute that provides her with emergency powers, and debate whether it should be changed. But until the Legislature changes it or a court strikes it down as unconstitutional, it is the law. That’s generally how things work in our constitutional republic.

The resolution also spreads falsehoods about COVID-19.

“Whereas, the same research shows that face coverings, while not preventing the virus, cause respiratory disease and pneumonia, with far worse devastation to the populace than the virus itself,” might be the biggest whopper of them all from the resolution. This assertion has been repeatedly debunked.

A reporter asked Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah about that mask claim at a recent media briefing, and Shah didn’t mince words.

“Every single word in the sentence you just uttered is false,” Shah said. “Indeed if it were true we would see widespread respiratory viruses and pneumonia in the millions of healthcare workers who wear face coverings every single day and we don’t.”

If their misinformation wasn’t enough, the commissioners also managed to include some xenophobia while they were at it by referring to COVID-19 as the “Wuhan Virus.” There are ways to talk about the origins of the virus and the need to hold the Chinese government accountable for its delay in sharing information with the rest of the world without alienating people of Asian descent — like many of the international students who attend Foxcroft Academy and help support the Piscataquis County economy.

In this and in many other instances, the commissioners’ resolution was self-defeating. While this document purported to stand up for the local businesses and community members negatively impacted by the pandemic — and the hurt across Maine has been real — the falsehoods and rhetoric contained within it distract and detract from any actual point the commissioners were trying to get across.

To make matters even worse, the commissioners also likely violated Maine’s open access laws by developing the resolution via email and phone calls rather than in public view, and unanimously adopting it on Jan.13 without a public meeting. To quote from the state’s Frequently Asked Questions page about Maine’s Freedom of Access Act, “E-mail or other communication among the members of a body that is used as a substitute for deliberations or decisions which should properly take place at a public meeting may likely be considered a ‘meeting’ in violation of the statutory requirements for open meetings and public notice.”

They also failed to list the signing of the resolution on the agenda for their Jan. 19 meeting. And when some of their constituents tried to protest the protest resolution while following the proceeding via Zoom, White shut them off.

Despite all of these shortcomings, the three commissioners each signed their name to this flawed document at the meeting this week. Torbett said he wrote it and that it was meant to protest what he views as a lack of representation of his county’s concerns in Mills’ COVID-19 orders. He also said the point was not to create controversy.

If he and his fellow commissioners would like to avoid controversy in the future, we suggest leaving out the falsehoods and avoiding likely freedom of access violations. It should go without saying that their constituents deserve county officials who operate based on facts and in accordance with state law.

Online: http://bit.ly/3c3k4hK

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MASSACHUSETTS:

It’s time lawmakers support an ‘open’ House

Boston Globe

Jan. 19

There’s a new guy on the rostrum as the 192nd session of the Massachusetts House begins work, but an astonishing sameness in the way business is conducted — the same lack of transparency, a place where being a lawmaker is an insider’s game.

It doesn’t have to be that way, and there are at least a vocal handful of newly elected legislators who could make a difference, who could — even in the age of COVID-19 — make changes in a legislative body that often seems as ancient a relic as the Sacred Cod that hangs above the House chamber.

At the start of each session comes the all-too pro forma election of the speaker, followed by the equally pro forma adoption of rules, tweaked only marginally to keep up with the times — like keeping to a minimum late-night sessions. The players may change, but the rules and laws that keep the Legislature shrouded in mystery endure.

And so the Legislature continues to remain exempt from the state’s public records law, which means meeting agendas, e-mails, texts, and expense and travel reports (not involving campaign funds) are all not required to be in public view. The pandemic has served to exacerbate that problem.

At the end of the last session, as wide-ranging bills involving police reform, climate, health care, and economic development were being negotiated behind closed doors by a handful of lawmakers (three from each branch on each of those issues), the public was not even entitled to know how often those conference committees were meeting or even if they were meeting.

Even in “normal” years, bills that appear to have widespread support, as evidenced by dozens of named sponsors, simply disappear in the Rules or Ways and Means committees, never to be seen again. A sex education bill that passed the Senate 33-2 last January died at the end of the last session, never having emerged from the House Ways and Means Committee. It’s the same fate the bill has met since 2012.

This is no way to conduct the people’s business.

A group of progressives, some of whom won election to the Legislature this fall, and more than a dozen incumbents pledged during their campaigns to work to make the Legislature more accountable and their own on-the-job conduct more transparent.

The pledge was the agenda centerpiece of the advocacy group Act on Mass, whose cofounder, Erika Uyterhoeven, won election this fall to the Somerville seat of retiring Representative Denise Provost.

As a newly elected state rep, Uyterhoeven said in an interview that she’s committed to support “any reform that can make our Legislature more democratic,” not just for its members but also as a way to reach out to the public.

“For example, requiring 72 hours to read a bill is not just for myself as a legislator,” she added, “but so I can get feedback from my constituents.”

The progressive lawmakers pledged to make all their committee votes public. If chosen to chair a committee, they pledged to make all votes taken and testimony received by that committee public and to stand and demand roll call votes on bills or amendments on any piece of legislation they have cosponsored or anything of a similar nature. That may sound rather modest, but getting a roll call vote is no small thing.

And the dirty little secret revealed quite accurately on the Act on Mass website is that “A legislator can say they support a bill by co-sponsoring it, but that does not actually make the bill more likely to pass. It is well known that some legislators even lobby in secret against bills they have co-sponsored.”

At the start of the last session, progressives and Republicans found common ground on a number of rules reforms but ultimately fell short in the House. The Senate went its own way and has since then included recorded committee votes in the official legislative history of a bill, something 27 other states do, according to Act on Mass.

Another effort is expected this time around to:

▪ Make all committee votes public on the Mass.gov website.

▪ Make all written testimony submitted to committees available on the website.

▪ Require at least 72 hours between the time a bill is released until the time it can be voted on — with provisions for a two-thirds vote to waive the rule in an emergency.

If ever there were a moment for common-sense rules reforms aimed at making lawmaking more transparent, at restoring public trust in an institution mired in complacency, it is now. House members new and old forget that at their own electoral peril.

Online: http://bit.ly/39TcIdS

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VERMONT:

Chilibuster

The Rutland Herald/Times Argus

Jan. 21

Bernie broke the internet.

We needed this. Two-time presidential candidate, and a fierce advocate of fair wages is probably not super psyched that part of his legacy is going to be mittens. But America needed the mittens.

On a chilly Jan. 20, with snow in the air in Washington, D.C., Bernie did the right thing: he donned practical clothing and a pair or warm mittens, since he was going to be sitting in the cold for several hours as Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were sworn in.

Amid the dark suits and bright coats dotting the Capitol steps, Bernie was photographed sitting masked, cross-legged and bundled up in a bulky coat and mittens.

The photographer Brendan Smialowski for Getty Images posted it online. Literally, within minutes, Bernie was being inserted into a wide array of photographs and scenes from movies and artworks, and so much more.

Bernie became the 2021 version of Where’s Waldo.

According to The New York Times on Thursday, because of his clothing choices he is “now the center of a seemingly endless flood of altered pictures that dominated some corners of the internet in the hours after Mr. Biden’s socially distanced inauguration.”

According to the Times, “On a day all about Mr. Biden, it was in some ways appropriate that Mr. Sanders, whose strongest political support in the presidential race came from young voters, would nonetheless be the star of the day’s biggest meme by doing nothing but sitting and crossing his arms. In their primary competition, Mr. Sanders enjoyed a significantly larger online following than Mr. Biden, especially among those who often communicate through memes.”

So seeing Bernie in the Millennium Falcon, or hanging with the sheep at Sterling College in Craftsbury, all seems a bit surreal. How did this all come to pass?

The mittens were important to him.

Bernie is Bernie.

And despite sounding like he is from New York City, Bernie is so Vermont.

In the photo, he is wearing mittens made out of recycled materials. As many pundits noted, he “pulled off a casual inauguration outfit — and vibe — that only he could.”

Many people quickly highlighted the 79-year-old independent Vermont senator’s look, and created endless memes, from Wednesday’s inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, which he said was more about keeping warm than fashion.

“You know in Vermont, we dress warm, we know something about the cold, and we’re not so concerned about good fashion, we want to keep warm. And that’s what I did today,” Sanders told CBS on Wednesday.

As has been widely reported in the past two days (and we hope she has an Etsy page) people were particularly enthralled with Sanders’ mittens, which were made by Jen Ellis, a Vermont elementary school teacher who has a side business making mittens out of recycled wool.

“I love it that he loves them, and that he wears them,” Ellis told one cable TV network. “And I’m totally honored that he wore them today.”

Ellis has never met Sanders. But when her daughter went to a child care center owned by one of his relatives, she was able to slip a pair into Sanders’ hands.

“I think people like a heartwarming story — especially now,” she said when asked about all the attention the mittens were getting on social media.

Sanders donned the mittens while running for president in 2020 and in interviews.

Sanders’ complete inauguration look included a brown winter jacket made by Burton snowboards.

To those who say Bernie was being disrespectful, drop it.

The independent was being just that. It was not a political ploy. It was a practical step toward staying warm while sitting outside. And he was comfortable. Just look at the memes.

But we will say this: Before the Bernie inaugural bobblehead hits the market, President Biden would be well informed to invite the senator in from the cold, and ask him for some counsel on how to keep the progressive base in the ongoing discussions of such issues as health care, livable wage, income inequality, homelessness, and many more issues near and dear to the Democratic Party.

Bernie’s revolution resonated with a lot of Americans who reluctantly voted for Joe Biden. And now, they, too, are looking for practical solutions, and answers that are not left in the cold.

Meanwhile, enjoy the memes. They are hilarious.

Online: http://bit.ly/396A3cQ

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