WATERVILLE — Gov. Janet Mills praised business leaders and others during a Mid-Maine Chamber of Commerce breakfast Thursday morning, saying that despite the pandemic, the region is thriving and COVID-19 levels are lower in Maine than elsewhere in the country.

“It’s because of you and all Maine people that our state has the fourth-lowest rate of cases and the third-lowest rate of deaths,” Mills said.

About 50 people attended the breakfast at the Best Western Plus Waterville Grand Hotel, where Mills said Maine has the third highest vaccination rate of all the states, with 76.4% of Mainers fully vaccinated.

Maine Gov. Janet Mills fields questions Thursday during the Mid-Maine Chamber of Commerce Business Breakfast Series at the Best Western Plus in Waterville. Before taking questions, Mills gave a speech about the pandemic and Maine’s economic recovery. About 50 people attended the breakfast. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

“We lag only behind Vermont and Rhode Island,” she said. “It’s because of you that our economy is recovering.”

According to the U.S. CDC’s COVID data tracker, Vermont’s full vaccination rate is at 78.3% and Rhode Island’s is at 77.5%.

Meanwhile, Maine’s gross domestic product has not fully bounced back, but it has exceeded where it was pre-pandemic, according to Mills, who took office in 2019. The state’s GDP has increased 42.2% over the third quarter of 2019 and is up 14.1% over the last 10 years, she said.

“Our auto, building supply, lodging, retail and restaurant sales are all up,” she said. “Our tourism industry had a banner year.”

The population of Maine has grown at the second-highest rate in New England where, previously, people had talked about the population declining in Maine and residents leaving the state, according to Mills. Maine’s population is an estimated 1.37 million, according to the U.S. Census, whereas it was an estimated 1.32 million a decade earlier.

“They are coming back, and they’re coming back here from all over,” she said. “People feel safe here.”

While everyone should be proud of that, the pandemic is causing a lot of problems, especially for small business owners, Mills said. She said Heather Johnson, state commissioner of the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development, has been the mainstay of Maine’s business progress and economic development. Johnson accompanied Mills at the breakfast Thursday.

Maine has long struggled with a workforce shortage, a problem Mills said she inherited when she took office, and that is why, in her first year, she commissioned the state’s first strategic economic development plan in decades to attract new workers to Maine. The pandemic has made the challenge worse, not just for Maine but for the entire country, she said.

Workers told state officials that during the pandemic, they have had a hard time accessing child care and transportation, they are afraid of getting sick if they go back to work, they were unable to find jobs to match their skills, and they are retiring early, according to Mills.

“Those are observations we’ve seen nationwide,” she said.

In response to such issues, businesses have been offering new incentives, increasing wages, transitioning to remote work when they can and ensuring employees are safe, she said.

Maine Gov. Janet Mills fields questions Thursday during the Mid-Maine Chamber of Commerce Business Breakfast Series at the Best Western Plus in Waterville. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

“My administrative team is doing our part to help more people rejoin the workforce or join for the first time ever, earn a living and support their families and aid in Maine’s economic recovery,” she said, adding that workshops have been held and other action taken to help reduce unemployment.

Mills noted that she launched the Maine Jobs & Recovery Plan, which was enacted by the Legislature last year and includes more than $300 million in planned workforce investments in education and training programs, workforce housing, child care, broadband, and help for small businesses, she said.

“A little over 5,000 people in the entire state are currently collecting unemployment as they transition to other jobs,” she said.

She said she hopes, in the coming months, to announce the start of other initiatives to support businesses and strengthen the workforce.

Mills asked businesses and others to encourage customers and staff to wear masks indoors and post information about safe practices, to help prevent the continued spread of COVID-19.

Christopher Clarke, business expert for U.S. Cellular’s corporate office in Waterville, asked Mills what is being done to improve broadband in northern and central Maine so students and others have access. She said that during the pandemic the state has supported ensuring school children have access to internet devices and service contracts, and thousands of children have access.

“I think we’ve got to keep kids in school,” she said. “I think in-person learning is paramount, but there were times, certainly, in the last year when that wasn’t possible, so internet access is extremely important.”

With help from the state Legislature, officials organized the Maine Connectivity Authority which is mapping out the state to identify gaps, according to Mills. Improving access does not only mean laying infrastructure, but also making sure connections for Maine consumers are affordable, she said. Federal money will be funneled to Maine to help improve access, she said.

Chamber President and CEO Kimberly Lindlof said she lives in Fairfield where PFAS, also known as “forever chemicals,” has been found and she is lucky to have public drinking water, but a lot of board members and businesses do not. She asked Mills to continue to help with the problem.

Mills said that with the Legislature’s help, the state is investing in testing and remediating PFAs.

“It’s a huge issue,” she said. “We’re investing federal and state money in that issue right now.”

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