It would be wrong to say that the pandemic is winding down with numbers still at or near prior peaks, but Maine – and the nation – have begun to shift into a new phase nonetheless: from crisis to emergency.

During a crisis, government is willing to take all sorts of drastic actions that they feel are necessary. That’s why every state in the country declared a state of emergency (it really should be called a state of crisis), and governors took dramatic steps like shutting down businesses and schools. Crises are best understood as a temporary state of affairs requiring an immediate response – such as the short-term reaction to a natural disaster, like a hurricane or an earthquake. During a crisis, the citizenry is largely willing to tolerate short-term responses to alleviate the present danger, like a draft during wartime (although in a free society, even these measures will often prove controversial).

An emergency is different. It’s ongoing, with no clear end in sight, and that’s the phase we’ve moved on to now with the pandemic. That’s why various levels of government, here in Maine and around the country and the world, have been willing to let the extreme measures they took at the beginning of the pandemic lapse: It’s transformed into a more manageable ongoing emergency.

Just because the crisis has changed into an emergency, however, doesn’t mean we should simply allow everything to revert to the pre-pandemic norms. Many of us may have forgotten this of late, but during the early days of the pandemic, in addition to imposing new restrictions, governments suspended a whole raft of regulations and rules that were (theoretically) there to keep the public safe.

Now that we’ve entered this new phase, we shouldn’t simply reimpose all the restrictions and rules that were present before the pandemic began. Instead, we should take the opportunity to re-examine those rules, and whether they truly do anything to keep anyone safe or if they’re merely another bureaucratic hassle imposed by an overreaching government.

This problem can be considered in a microcosm through one issue: outdoor dining. All over the state, and the country, many governments made it easier for restaurants to offer outdoor seating for their customers. They blocked off parking spots, closed streets to vehicular traffic and suspended the normal regulatory approval process so restaurants didn’t have to spend too much time and money doing it.

All of that makes perfect sense, and it served both businesses and the public well: it allowed businesses to expand their capacity even in the face of increased restrictions, while the public to could dine safely. Going forward, it may be reasonable to expect that some of these accommodations will be rolled back, but they shouldn’t all simply be eliminated at once; that would be unfair to everyone.

Unfortunately, one community in Maine has taken the latter approach rather than the former: Falmouth, which decided in August to abruptly end its new outdoor dining spaces. Although the reasonable members of the Town Council later reversed the decision, it’s astonishing that it happened in the first place.

For one, it’s stunning that councilors were willing to let the outdoor dining provision expire even though they were unable to meet in person because of the ongoing pandemic. That should have been a hint to them that even though Gov. Mills allowed the state of emergency to expire, the real emergency was hardly over.

It’s even more disturbing that one town councilor didn’t seem to quite know what he was voting for, but worse than that is the councilor who knew what she was voting on and voted to let the measure expire anyway. She argued that restaurants had now had months to apply for permits; while that’s true, the town has also had months to reconsider its permitting process and hasn’t.

A far more reasonable course of action is proceeding in Portland, which is considering permanently closing some streets to vehicular traffic to expand outdoor dining for good, using one-time stimulus money to pay for it.

That’s a far better approach to reinstating some rules eased early on: finding a middle ground that continues some good ideas we’ve stumbled upon during the pandemic without simply going back to the way things were. Hopefully, as they consider whether to reimpose all kinds of suspended regulations, more governments follow the example of how Portland handled the process for outdoor dining than Falmouth’s haphazard approach.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at:
[email protected]
Twitter: @jimfossel


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