The successful People First Portland campaign in support of five ballot questions in November will undoubtedly shape the next year in Portland. (Portland Phoenix/Jenny Ibsen)
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The new Portland Phoenix published its first edition a year ago.

Since then we’ve confronted an unpredictable year narrated by the coronavirus pandemic; the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, which incited waves of Black Lives Matter protests in Portland and across the country; and a tense political climate, followed by a divisive election.

These national experiences felt salient throughout Maine. We’ve found creative ways to support our communities and adapt our lives with distance, all while balancing a precarious economy. Yet, the seven-day average for daily COVID-19 cases in Maine reached 171 at the end of last week, up sharply from only a month before.

With so much behind us, we are compelled to try to anticipate what’s to come, looking hopefully toward the future, and greeting challenges with energy. We’ve asked Mainers with expertise across several fields the same question: What predictions and expectations do you have for the next year?

Here’s what they had to say.

Dr. Nirav Shah (Courtesy Maine CDC)

Dr. Nirav Shah, Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention director

“In the coming months, vaccine distribution will feature prominently in our work,” Shah said. “My team has been preparing for a COVID-19 vaccine for months, and we’re poised to shift from preparation to distribution when a safe vaccine becomes available to the public,” adding that the vaccine won’t be widely available until sometime next year. 

“Science will continue to guide the Mills administration’s response to COVID-19. It’s important to note that scientific knowledge is fluid; it changes as new research introduces new information. The administration will continue to adapt its policies and response to reflect the dynamic nature of global research on COVID-19. Maine is the state with the oldest median age in the nation, so the administration will continue to build on its work to date to ensure the safety of our most vulnerable neighbors.

“The next few weeks are critical. Maine has begun experiencing widespread community transmission. It poses a significant risk that the number of cases could grow exponentially. … What we do in the next few weeks will shape Maine’s relationship with COVID-19 during the winter holiday season and into the new year. A lot depends on how well we care for each other by wearing face coverings in public, staying at least 6 feet apart, and avoiding non-essential gatherings.

“It’s going to be difficult because we are entering a season marked by celebrating together. But adjusting the way we celebrate this year will put us all in a better position when a vaccine does become available.”

Shah said he and his family intend to change their typical holiday plans, which is disappointing, but “the right thing to do.”

“Community response will be collective individual responses,” he said. “If Maine people carry on by showing the same level of compassion and community-minded spirit that they have to date in responding to the pandemic, we’ll get through this together.”

Mayor Kate Snyder (Courtesy city of Portland)

Portland Mayor Kate Snyder 

“What we’ve learned over the last year is that it’s actually hard to develop projections,” Snyder said. “When I was elected a year ago and sworn in in 2019, I had some sense of what the role and issues would be on the short-term horizon – and so quickly all of that got altered in a way that was fairly unprecedented. You sign up and then you adjust as needed with any job. Change is the only constant and we’re all responsible for pivoting through difficult times.

“Our context is fairly different – the number of cases on the rise, the Black Lives Matter movement – creating a constant need for looking through an equity lens, a racial lens, a socioeconomic lens. We have tough economic times that are likely to become even tougher with the winter on the horizon and so much uncertainty.

“Education is really significant. Having young kids in school infrequently is such a huge deal for the kids, the families, the educators. I feel like a fear of mine is that we’re going to have to address any potential learning loss and expansion of opportunity gaps as a result of kids not being able to have access to public schools in the way that they have in the past.”

On the city’s reaction to the recent passage of ballot questions that, among other things, will increase the minimum wage and enact rent controls, Snyder said “so far we’ve worked our way through two of the ordinance amendments, A and F. It’s not that the City Council or I are looking to alter the ordinances. This is our new law, and I’m fully behind it. Our job right now is to implement the language of the ordinance and there’s a confusion behind the intent and the actual writing.

“We are in this unfortunate position where we implement the language as it’s written. We cannot go in and amend an ordinance that’s been approved by voters. Democracy is not being subverted; nobody is looking to overturn the election results. We are looking to guidance from Corporation Counsel to be clear of the ordinance language.”

Em Burnett (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

Em Burnett, People First Portland organizer

“So many people woke up on Nov. 4 feeling empowered and optimistic about Portland,” said Burnett, who helped lead the campaign for five Portland ballot questions. “I see People First Portland as a reflection of what we can achieve when residents come together to push for the rights, respect, and future we all deserve. We’re just getting started.

“We are working hard to ensure that the will of the voters is carried out through full implementation (of Portland’s recent ballot initiatives). We’re also educating workers and tenants about their new rights. And, looking forward, we’re planning a robust and inclusive process for the development of a people’s platform for the Charter Commission.

“I honestly think something will have to break before the current city government recognizes that residents have the wisdom and expertise to help create and lead this city. People are sick of a public engagement process that’s not inclusive or accessible and ultimately doesn’t change outcomes. … When things break, though, we can then explore a more imaginative vision for our city to fill that void. Imagine a city where everyone is housed, workers are valued and compensated, small businesses thrive, and cars no longer rule our public space.”

Quincy Hentzel (Courtesy PRCC)

Quincy Hentzel, Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce president and CEO

“The referendums that passed this election brought forward by the Southern Maine Democratic Socialists of America will undoubtedly have a devastating impact on our city,” said Hentzel, whose group opposed the successful initiative to increase Portland’s minimum wage.

“It’s incredibly difficult to fathom how any small business can withstand an hourly wage increase, under the emergency wage proposal that passed, from $12 to $18 per hour, especially as we prepare to enter month nine of a pandemic that has wreaked havoc on our economy.

“And the rent control ordinance along with the Green New Deal sadly undermines two of Portland voters’ key priorities: solving the housing crisis and updating and upgrading its public schools. Hundreds of affordable, workforce, and market-rate units will not be built, further contributing to Portland’s housing crisis and the cost of construction will likely prohibit the building of Portland schools anytime soon. These are the extremely unfortunate and unintended consequences of passing massive policy changes with no public forum, discussion, or analysis. The path forward will be incredibly challenging as we navigate the implementation and impact of these policy initiatives.

“I think the next year is full of uncertainty – with COVID-19 cases ticking upward and winter coming, it will undoubtedly be a challenging few months for our small business community. Adding the impact of the referendums that recently passed, it’s going to be a difficult year to navigate.”

Mario Moretto (Courtesy MCEP)

Mario Moretto, Maine Center for Economic Policy communications director

“We’re watching for how the recovery from the pandemic recession has us landing in Maine: Is it equal? Are there divides in geography, population groups, such as race, income, education levels? In previous recessions, we’ve seen that recoveries often do not arise at the same speed or scale for everybody all at once,” Moretto, whose research and policy organization is dedicated to improving the economic well-being of low- and moderate-income Mainers.

He noted that recovery from COVID-19 is coming faster for white men than people of color, and during the Great Recession, Maine took far longer to recover than other states.

“Whether or not we get another round of federal COVID-19 relief is really going to be one of the biggest factors in what the economy will look like. At this point, if nothing else happens, all pandemic benefits will end by the next year.”

The policy group is also watching for “whether there were economic trends that existed before … that were accelerated or decelerated by COVID-19,” Moretto said, things like the prevalence of remote work, migration trends, and demand for urban over rural or suburban housing.

“We know that COVID-19 has exposed some of the cracks that have already existed in our economic and social support systems. Whether those are disparities with outcomes around racial or income lines, there were already cracks in the system and COVID-19 made those very clear. Whether there is increased urgency to fill those cracks – that’s a big question for 2021.”

Kim Hamilton (Courtesy FocusMaine)

Kim Hamilton, FocusMaine president

“Disruptions in the food supply chain that had everyone concerned early this spring have built growing support for local and regional food with shorter supply chains,” said Hamilton, who heads the private sector-led initiative that focuses on agriculture, aquaculture, and biopharmaceuticals in Maine. She added that hopefully, customer appreciation for local businesses will continue after supply chains are functional again.

“In aquaculture, not only do we continue to see untapped potential, but we’re also seeing an increased interest in the crosswalk between biotech and aquaculture. In other words, we see a growing interest in innovative, sustainable ways to derive more value from the “blue economy.”

She said FocusMaine is also watching for specific trends: The first is the strength of the regional market and buying local, the second is the acceleration of remote learning and working, and the third trend is the differential impact that COVID-19 has had on small businesses, women and BIPOC communities.

“Many Maine companies are playing an important role in the nation’s fight against COVID-19, from basic research to testing and diagnostics. Many of these companies continue to have ambitious hiring goals, and this trained biotechnology workforce will provide a strong foundation for the sector moving forward. Together, these give us great hope for a better 2021.”

Scott Mohler (Courtesy Maine Music Alliance)

Scott Mohler, Maine Music Alliance president

“We want to see the organization outlast the pandemic, pivoting as a resource for musicians, and provide more musical experiences for the community,” Mohler, a co-founder of the group founded in September to support Portland’s live music venues during the pandemic, said.

“The biggest win would be that we open up next year with the same amount of venues that we closed with. As for the winter, I think we’re going to see a lot more virtual events, but hopefully, we’ll have a better grasp on what next spring and summer can look like, especially with more ability to plan for outdoor events that are safe.”

At the end of this month, he noted, the State Theatre will host its annual ‘Beatles Night’ via live stream.

“It’s great to offer something that people are accustomed to seeing. It’s the ability to bring some kind of normalcy again.”

Earle G. Shettleworth Jr. (Courtesy state of Maine)

Earle G. Shettleworth Jr., Maine state historian

“Maine people are very resourceful, regenerative, and creative. It’s part of what goes with living in Maine because there are, and have been throughout history, challenges of the terrain – the landscape, the seascape, and the seasons,” said Shettleworth, Maine’s state historian since 2004. “Maine will rebound from the challenges of the pandemic and go forward, as it always has.”

This year is the 200th anniversary of Maine’s statehood. Although the planned 2020 celebration was disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, Shettleworth said he hopes there will be a bicentennial celebration in 2021.

“(Maine) has recovered from many challenges in the past 400 years. Maine was the frontier between French Canada and English New England in the 17th and mid-18th centuries. In 1675 and again in 1690, Portland survived when a small community on the peninsula was wiped out. In 1775, Portland survived an attack from the British, and in 1866 a fire burned a third of the community.

“People are, and have been, resourceful and responsive to the challenges that come along.”

Freelance writer Jenny Ibsen lives in Portland.

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