State, federal resources aimed to help Maine during pandemic

ELLSWORTH — Although classroom instruction has been halted, you may still see school buses. Instead of delivering children to schools or their homes, the buses are delivering food through April 3.

“We do have the ability to provide food for each one of our students,” wrote Michael Eastman, superintendent of Regional School Unit 24, in a March 17 letter to the community.

Buses will leave individual schools at about 11 a.m. weekdays to make deliveries along the bus routes. Friday’s deliveries will include extra food for weekend consumption.

Meals will also be available for pickup at schools within the district. Breakfast will be served from 8-8:30 a.m. and lunch from noon-12:30 p.m. The meals are available to anyone under the age of 18 regardless of whether that person is a resident of the district.

The food deliveries are made possible by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Child and Adult Care Food Program, which provides a free and “substantial and nutritionally balanced” afternoon meal to anyone aged 18 or younger. The district began offering the food in February at its schools after classes.

At the state level, Governor Janet Mills and the state Legislature enacted a package of emergency measures Tuesday. These include:

  • Establishing a consumer loan guarantee program to provide low- or no-interest loans for eligible people in Maine.
  • Temporarily expanding eligibility for unemployment benefits for workers affected by COVID-19.
  • Increasing the Department of Education’s ability to waive certain school-day requirements and to continue school lunch programs for eligible children.
  • Authorizing Mills to adjust state, county and municipal government deadlines and to permit all public entities to meet by remote participation; expanding the ability of Maine Emergency Medical Services’ board and staff to take actions more promptly.
  • Prohibiting utilities from terminating residential electric and water service.
  • Delaying the effective date of the single-use plastic bag ban to Jan. 15, 2021.

The emergency measures package also authorizes Mills to determine and direct the manner of the June 2020 primary, if necessary.

These measures come in addition to a bipartisan agreement on a revised supplemental budget proposal passed by the Legislature Monday. It includes $1 million in funding for the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, $17.4 million to the Budget Stabilization Fund to prepare for the possibility of future COVID-19-related expenses or any shifts in Maine’s economy as a result of the outbreak; and $15 million to be used to fund rate increases for those providing care for Maine seniors, people with disabilities and children with behavioral health needs. The state also will expend $38 million to raise its contribution for K-12 education by 1 percent, from 50.78 to 51.78 percent, and is allocating $10 million to repair roads, bridges and other transportation infrastructure.

Mills called the proposal “a bipartisan effort to strengthen the state’s ability to respond to and mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in Maine.”

“It takes strong steps to boost Maine’s health care system in support of our most vulnerable citizens, support the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and prepare for the very real prospect of an economic downturn related to the virus,” she said.

Mills and the Legislature also agreed on a bond package of $15 million for transportation funding and $15 million to expand high-speed internet access, a critical need as much of the state temporarily transitions to remote learning and remote work during this period of social distancing.

Additional legislation includes provisions allowing municipalities to continue to fund government operations at the previous year’s budget in the event town meetings are postponed. This piece of legislation applies retroactively to March 1 and is repealed Jan. 1, 2021. A related provision allows municipalities and other public officials to conduct public proceedings by telephone, video or electronic means.

Registrations for motor vehicles, all-terrain vehicles, watercraft and dogs issued by the municipality will be valid for 30 days after the public health emergency and gives municipalities the authority to grant requests to renew liquor licenses without a hearing. The measure also requires the secretary of state and the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife to expand online access to licensing and registration systems.

In the event that school board meetings are delayed, schools may continue operations at the same budget levels approved for the previous year.

The emergency measures also revise unemployment insurance eligibility and benefit charging provisions under the Employment Security Law during a declared public health emergency.

On another front, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) announced Tuesday that it is implementing emergency rules for MaineCare. Effective March 18, DHHS is waiving all copays, allowing early prescription refills, waiving initial prior authorization requirements for asthma and for immune-related drugs, lengthening the period that prior authorization applies for prescription medications and durable medical equipment and extending the amount of time that home health providers have to submit plans of care.

In addition, effective immediately, prescriptions can be issued through telehealth.

In line with guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, DHHS is limiting its interactions with the public. Clients are encouraged to fill out and submit applications and reviews for programs online and submit paperwork via fax, email or postal carrier.

DHHS offices remain open at this time, and clients can fill out applications in person if they prefer.

Johanna S. Billings

Reporter at The Ellsworth American
News Reporter Johanna S. Billings covers eastern Hancock County and western Washington County. An avid photographer, she lives in Steuben with her husband and several cats. She welcomes tips and story ideas. Email her at [email protected]

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