The coronavirus pandemic has been a shock to the national economy, and Maine is no exception. But as hard as it’s been on Maine workers and businesses, the pandemic is creating opportunities that no one could have predicted.

CNN and Moody’s Analytics rank Maine No. 1 on its “Back to Normal Index,” which combines a number of economic statistics to determine the rate at which state economies are recovering. According to these measures, Maine has recovered 93 percent of its economic output from mid March, making it a bounce-back leader. The national average is 80 percent, and Louisiana is in last place, at 73 percent recovered.

This number needs to be viewed critically: A good Maine economy in late winter is not where most of us expected to be in September. And COVID-19’s economic hardship has not been spread evenly, hitting the tourism and hospitality industries heavily, while leaving other sectors unscathed.

But it’s also important to note what puts Maine on the top of the list – a red-hot housing market. It’s centered in the Portland area, and largely driven by out-of-state buyers looking to relocate. And this is the opportunity.

An estimated one third of American workers worked from home during the pandemic, and many employers were pleasantly surprised with how well it functioned. Many employers and employees plan to continue remote working after the public health crisis ends, making better use of their time and eliminating long commutes. Once you don’t have to come into the office, it doesn’t really matter where you are, and some of those people are deciding that they would rather be in Maine.

This is an opportunity for Maine, especially areas that have suffered job losses in recent years. We don’t have to lure a company to move a few hundred jobs to Maine with lucrative tax abatements and other incentives if we can welcome a few hundred workers who will come here with their jobs and invest in our communities. They won’t need subsidies because they will be attracted by what we already have – a clean environment, housing that’s affordable compared to what’s available in major metropolitan areas, and a relaxed pace of life.

But these jobs will never come unless we can guarantee that they will be able to access reliable, high-speed internet service. Unfortunately, that can’t be promised in much of the state.

The state’s 2020 broadband action plan found that 20 percent of Maine households have no internet access, and many business people report inadequate service to meet their needs. That’s probably why Maine has the lowest rate of homes connected to the internet of any state in New England, according to the U.S. Census.

This is not just a question of attracting remote workers from other states. A lack of internet access created unequal opportunity for rural students when their schools were shut down last semester, a divide that will grow more severe as schools go at least to part-time distance learning this year. And senior citizens and others without service have not been able to access telemedicine services. Very few businesses of any kind can operate without internet access, and many need high-speed service to communicate with consumers and suppliers.

This is not a problem that will be solved by market forces. Just like roads and phone lines, economic activity will follow the infrastructure, but it won’t grow in places that lack the basics. High-speed internet is as basic as electricity in the modern economy.

Work is getting more mobile, and that gives Maine a great opportunity to build its economy. But that won’t happen unless we continue to expand high-speed internet service.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.