From getting copies of birth or death certificates to registering a vehicle to paying property taxes or even getting a dog license, towns and cities are taking different approaches to protecting the public and their workers from the spread of the coronavirus.

With increasingly stricter guidelines on public gatherings and social distancing taking effect, state and local government agencies across Maine are steadily limiting the amount of in-person business they are doing with citizens.

At the state level, most departments and agencies are limiting their direct contact with members of the public, said Lindsay Crete, the press secretary for Gov. Janet Mills.

Crete provided a list of 15 state departments and highlighted what steps they were taking to continue functioning without face-to-face interaction. Many were conducting business by phone, while others, like the Department of Environmental Protection, were closed to public visits but were accepting applications for permits or benefits at drop-off windows.

The Department of Labor remains open, but has temporarily closed its 12 Career Centers – where job seekers can get counseling and training – and instead will provide help to clients by phone or online, Crete said.

The Bureau of Motor Vehicles also has closed all its branches temporarily. Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap announced the closures Tuesday as part of the effort to slow the spread of the virus. Most of the bureau’s services can be obtained online, although some services including new driver’s licenses, Real IDs and new registrations will be put on hold.

Dean Staffieri, the president of the largest union for state workers, MSEA-SEIU Local 1989, said they have been pushing Mills to allow more workers to telecommute as part of her administration’s effort to make response to the outbreak a public priority. Staffieri said they began asking for that on March 3.

“We didn’t get much of a response from the governor’s office, other than they were working on it,” Staffieri said Wednesday. “It has taken even up until today, where we have many employees who have the capability to work from home, but they are still being asked to come in. The state has a ways to go on this still.”

Staffieri said he didn’t want to sound overly critical, but noted that the union has been asking for protection for its workers and the public they serve for nearly three weeks now.

Crete said Mills was making her decision on who should come to work and who should stay home based on guidance from the Maine CDC and her Coronavirus Response Team.

“At this point, she has encouraged each commissioner to work with their managers and human resources departments to provide state employees with options to limit potential exposure to COVID-19, including supporting social distancing by reducing the number of people in crowded work areas and offices, and encouraging those employees who can telework to do so,” Crete said in a prepared statement, “particularly if those employees are vulnerable to the virus.

“The administration is also looking to provide more flexibility in the use of leave options for those who need to be away from work for reasons related to the coronavirus, including expanding the use of sick leave with the approval of management. Each commissioner is taking steps that are appropriate to their department and the services they provide.”

Local governments also are shuttering their offices to the public and migrating the delivery of services online or to the U.S. mail, officials said Wednesday.

Lewiston Mayor Mark Cayer said his City Hall was effectively closed to the public as of Wednesday and that most services offered by the city were being delivered electronically, by phone or through the U.S. Mail.

But the city also was starting to make one-on-one appointments for services that couldn’t be delivered online, he said.

“It will slow the process down for some things, but the goal is to limit the contact to protect our citizens, but just as importantly to protect our staff,” Cayer said.

Cayer said the city also was taking steps to provide services like those offered by the public library or the city’s recreation department to citizens who depend on the programs for recreation, entertainment and education.

He said an emphasis was being placed on making sure older citizens, who are essentially being asked to shelter in place, have somebody checking on them. A phone tree for seniors who regularly participate in senior recreation programs was being created.

“We want to make sure somebody is calling our seniors, if not every day, every couple of days,” Cayer said, noting that many may be living alone or not have family close by.

He said the executive order Mills issued Wednesday that shut down dining in at restaurants and bars was a relief for many municipal officials.

“We are glad to have some hard-and-fast rules from the state,” Cayer said.

Auburn also had closed its city offices and was conducting most business by phone, online, by mail or by appointment only, Mayor Jason Levesque said.

Auburn also has delayed the deadline for property tax payments to the city until April 1 and has set up an emergency interest-free loan program for small businesses and was in the process of setting up a meal program for the city’s most vulnerable residents, he said.

Levesque agreed that statewide restrictions make better sense than a piecemeal, city-by-city approach.

“It’s all about your definition of community,” Levesque said. “It would be one thing if the world started and stopped at the municipal boundary, but it doesn’t.”

He said closing restaurants in one city in Maine would just push people to another city and defeat the purpose of social distancing.

Eric Conrad, a spokesman for the Maine Municipal Association, which includes nearly 500 cities and towns, said emergency legislation that passed into law this week allowing them to continue to function without financial authorization from town meeting voters was critical.

Many Maine municipalities are governed by town meetings, where citizens gather to vote on the town’s budget and other ordinances, a process that many towns are postponing due to social distancing guidelines.

“Probably 350 of 487 municipalities operate with a town meeting form of government and get their spending authority at town meeting,” Conrad said. The legislation passed this week allows them to continue to operate under their existing budget until town meeting voters can gather to vote in a new budget, he said.

Conrad said another emergency bill passed by lawmakers will allow city and town councils to meet remotely using conference calls or online meeting applications to avoid gathering in large groups.

Levesque, Auburn’s mayor, said the city was working on the technology that would allow that to happen, allow meetings to be broadcast live online and allow for public participation remotely when necessary. That law has a sunset provision that ends remote meeting when Maine is no longer in a state of civil emergency.

Conrad said the spread of the coronavirus and moves by local governments to try and protect their workers and the public also underscores the many ways that municipal governments provide essential services.

Even so, services like police, fire, emergency medical technicians, and street repair and maintenance can’t be delivered online, Conrad said.

“These are all things you can’t go a week or even a day without,” he said.

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