Bob Neal

“A policeman’s lot is not a happy one,” Gilbert & Sullivan wrote in 1879. That lyric from “The Pirates of Penzance” underlines the difficulty of being an enforcer. Anywhere.

As we tiptoe toward the end of COVID-19, a lot of lots are not happy. Plug in the word “governor” for “policeman” above and you’ll see where we’re going. We’re going to look at three governors, including ours, who stand in the pandemic limelight.

Janet Mills has come off so much as an enforcer that detractors call her “General Mills.” I’m not sure what to call Andrew Cuomo in New York, but it might not be printable. And Kristi Noem in South Dakota may be what Harry Truman called Congress, a “do nothing.” Truman always was ahead of his time.

As of Thursday, Maine had the third lowest infection rate, 3.9% of the population. New York was 26th lowest at 9.8%. South Dakota was 49th lowest (or second highest) at 13.5%. Maine is safer than 47 other states, and it isn’t because we’re isolated. South Dakota has half our population density, and its infection rate more than triples ours.

Mills stood in strong from the start. Like Republican governors Charlie Baker in Massachusetts and Phil Scott in Vermont, she grasped the seriousness quickly and used her constitutional powers to head it off. But I don’t recall her empathizing much with those hurt by the shutdowns (restaurants, bars, small stores) until her budget speech in February. And the logistics of Maine’s response haven’t been perfect. By a long shot.

After the Legislature adjourned last April, Mills conferred regularly with leaders of both parties to plan the virus response. But she got called out for holding private meetings, disallowed by law, and they ended, so far as anyone outside Augusta knows.

Republicans soon called to resume the session. But when Democratic leaders tried in July to resume, Republicans refused. Democrats wanted to act on a full agenda, while Republicans wanted to act on only COVID, maybe to dwell on diluting Mills’s powers. Is it a smart political strategy to attack something that’s working pretty well?

As well as Maine has done, it has fallen down on logistics. You don’t have to listen long to hear of snags. A friend waited five weeks for a response. He gave up and went to Walmart. A 20-something in Portland “knew someone” at CDC and told co-workers she got in before she was eligible. My 80-something neighbor drove 63 miles for shots. Etc.

This week, Dr. Nirav Shah, head of Maine’s CDC, told the 90,000 people who signed up through the state pre-registration system to look elsewhere. Why? Because only two providers, one in York and one in Augusta, had chosen to use the state’s sign-up sheet.

That health professionals didn’t link to the Department of Health and Human Services site may reflect their experience with DHHS. Reports have been around for years of lousy computer systems at DHHS. Maine allocated more than $5.2 million for the registration system, the Bangor Daily News reported. Now, the site has posted a long list of numbers where people can make appointments without relying on the state.

Who doesn’t know that DHHS is a mess? It may be too big, its tasks too unrelated — restaurant inspection doesn’t overlap with child protection — to make sense. As governor, Paul LePage tried to reform DHHS by starving it, illegally withholding or redirecting federal funds sent to the department. Mills seems to have chosen simply not to reform it.

On to the other guvs. Cuomo has used fear — does that sound familiar? — to bully his way through New York politics. It worked until eight women accused him of sexual impropriety. Bullying by another name. So, the virus may be the least of his worries now.

Still, it magnifies everything else. He gained sympathy last year, begging for ventilators. Which, it turns out, he didn’t need. Earlier, he and New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio had the sort of match that involves urination as to who was in charge. Turns out no one was in charge, and New Yorkers paid dearly for those titanic egos.

Now, we learn, Cuomo ordered hospitals to send virus patients to nursing homes to die, which kept the hospital-death statistics artificially low. All to mask the true numbers?

Kristi Noem in South Dakota thanked Donald Trump for giving her the freedom to respond to the virus as she saw fit. She saw as fit not to respond. Hers is the only state that never had a mask mandate and never limited social contact. But the people of South Dakota are free to contract COVID anywhere in the state.

Look at South Dakota this way. If you are in a room there and six people walk in, the probability is one of them had contracted COVID. Do that in Maine, and 24 others would have to walk in before the probability was that one had COVID. Bad odds, good odds.

Noem can’t deny the numbers. And her refusal to act may lie at the root of the numbers. Governing can get you cursed. Not governing when you should can get you cursed, too.

Bob Neal has voted only once for a Democrat for governor, Janet Mills. He has noticed that the governors of 15 of the 20 states with the highest infection rates aren’t Democrats. Neal can be reached at [email protected]


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