Good morning from Augusta. We’re putting the Daily Brief on hold as we continue into overdrive to cover the coronavirus, which has made work hours more irregular. It will be back soon. You can send us a tip using this form. Have you been tested for the virus? Talk to us here.
QUOTE OF THE DAY: “It’s just human nature, if you’re home, there are more opportunities to have sexual relations,” said Evelyn Kieltyka, the vice president of program services for Maine Family Planning. The context was a story on providers easing access to birth control during the coronavirus outbreak. Here’s your social distancing soundtrack.
What we’re watching today
The governor may announce more drastic measures barring public gatherings on Wednesday due to the coronavirus. While Gov. Janet Mills has wide power under an emergency order issued Sunday due to the virus, she has been reluctant to make edicts since Maine reported its first coronavirus cases on Thursday, recommending so far that people avoid mass gatherings as a handful of Maine cities have curtailed dine-in restaurant hours.
That may change on Wednesday as society clamps down. The Democratic governor said late Tuesday that she was considering a wider shutdown after more than 20 states have moved to close restaurants and bars or curtail hours. She said to expect an announcement today and that the state government will stay open for now despite a union call to send employees home.
The Legislature’s parting act was to temporarily give Mills more power over elections, towns and schools. An omnibus bill that was hashed out through the weekend and into Tuesday afternoon gave the governor the ability to waive the state’s minimum number of school days and attendance requirements as Maine schools move to remote instruction.
She can also take “any reasonable administrative actions” to ensure as many voters as possible are able to participate in the June 9 primaries — including an expansion of absentee voting that could transform the election, which will be highlighted by the four-way Democratic U.S. Senate race and the three-way Republican primary in the 2nd Congressional District. All of these measures may come into play if the virus persists deep into the spring.
The Maine politics top 3
— “Not all who want to get a coronavirus test can. Here’s why, and what to do if you can’t,” Eesha Pendharkar, Bangor Daily News: “Most physicians are offering tests to people who appear to have had the most significant exposure to the novel coronavirus. These might include people who have traveled recently, have been exposed to a confirmed case of coronavirus, or are sick with flu-like symptoms and have significant risk factors — for example, seniors and people with chronic illnesses.”
There is a testing lag, meaning the likely number of cases is higher than we know. A study published in the journal Science on Monday estimated that as of one point in January, 86 percent of coronavirus cases were undiagnosed in China, where the virus originated. A co-author of the study told Buzzfeed News said he wouldn’t be surprised if 50,000 Americans were infected, though the federal government only confirmed about 4,200 positive tests as of Tuesday.
— “Maine CDC director says feds should release more medical equipment from stockpile,” Jessica Piper, BDN: “The director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention called on the federal government to release medical equipment on Tuesday, citing the scarcity of important tools as Maine and other states confront outbreaks of the new coronavirus.”
The federal supply stock will get a slight boost from the military. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Tuesday that the Pentagon would give 5 million respirator masks and 2,000 ventilators to the federal Department of Health and Human Services, which can in turn distribute them to the states. That would be on top of somewhere between 4,000 and 10,000 respirators in the national stockpile, NPR reports — though the exact number is classified.
— “New Bangor factory starts making toilet paper just in the nick of time,” Charles Eichacker, BDN: “When Marc Cooper first acquired a building on the outskirts of Bangor last summer with the goal of converting raw tissue paper into finished goods, he didn’t foresee the global pandemic that would flare up some eight months later — let alone the effect it would have on his business.”
If you don’t have toilet paper, here’s what you can use. The outbreak allowed us to run this story on No. 2 options. The idea was floated on one of our desks months ago, but reporters waited to do it until it became a solid news-you-can-use item in the pandemic.
A marathon day, a slew of bills
Lawmakers were supposed to vote on just coronavirus-related and other essential items yesterday. The idea is that the Legislature will eventually return to finish the session, although it’s unclear when that might be. Lawmakers, clearly feeling anxious that their work might be left undone, passed nearly everything on both chamber agendas yesterday, with little — if any — floor discussion. It made for a long day, with legislators often idling while amendments and items passed back and forth through the chambers.
Health care bills dominated the day, but other measures got through. There was a bill amending tiny home registrations and a bill designed to make it easier for communities to apply for state broadband grants. Legislation on marijuana testing made the cut, as did a bill increasing the death benefit for families of first responders, inspired after a pierced gas line caused the nonprofit LEAP Inc building in Farmington to explode, killing Farmington fire Capt. Michael Bell and injuring others. A key domestic violence bill giving the Passamaquoddy Tribe and Penobscot Nation jurisdiction over certain crimes got through, ensuring at least one issue central to the tribes passed amid a bigger push for sovereignty.
That’s just a sampling of the legislation that passed and that Mills must either sign, veto or allow to pass into law. Everything else will be suspended until the Legislature returns. Even then, lawmakers will be crunched for time in an election year. Mills indicated in a Tuesday news release “her strong preference” is attention be given to “only the most pressing matters” then.
Today’s Daily Brief was written by Michael Shepherd, Jessica Piper and Caitlin Andrews. If you’re reading this on the BDN’s website or were forwarded it, email firstname.lastname@example.org (we’re setting up a new subscriber page soon) to subscribe to it via email.