The coronavirus pandemic has altered so much in a few short weeks that it’s almost impossible to believe. Back in February, I was attending hockey games with 5,000 other people in a cramped arena and thinking nothing of it. Now I’m stuck at home watching marble races on YouTube, and that’s the least of the changes.
Right now, it’s hard to say how long the current state of affairs will last. The number of cases and deaths in the United States continue to grow rapidly, especially in neighboring New York, and I can’t imagine that stay-at-home orders will be lifted until public health officials can confirm the epidemic has been drastically slowed. In other words, it could be many months before workers start returning to offices, shops, and factories, and stores, schools, and restaurants open up again.
I’ve never seen anything like this. It’s impossible to know exactly how an event like this will change the world and our state, but it’s certain that the way politics and government function in Connecticut will be dramatically upended.
1. Legislatures and Town Meetings
Just because we’re currently in a state of emergency doesn’t mean that the need for legislative bodies at both the state and municipal level goes away. It’s tempting to try to postpone everything that isn’t related to public health until after the crisis passes, but given how long it’ll be until a coronavirus vaccine is available, that is unrealistic.
That means that the legislative process needs to continue – with adequate safeguards in place, of course. The state legislature should be able to continue to meet online – there is no reason a state representative or senator can’t cast a vote or participate in a committee hearing remotely instead of in person.
As for cities and towns, their councils and boards should be able to do much the same thing. Town meetings may be more difficult to hold online, however, and may be an unfortunate casualty of the crisis unless municipalities find an easy and accessible way to host hundreds of people simultaneously.
Gov. Lamont has already ordered one sweeping change to town governance – the elimination of budget referendums. Given how difficult these referendums make the lives of municipal officials, I wonder how many will come back?
So much for old-school door-knocking campaigns. It’s going to get a lot harder for candidates to actually meet their voters, especially those who aren’t tech-savvy. Campaigns are going to have to rely ever more heavily on social media, unfortunately. That means our politics will be increasingly at the mercy of Facebook algorithms, over which we have no control at all.
Connecticut’s presidential primary has already been moved to the summer, so it’s possible we may see more election delays if the pandemic continues into the fall. But when elections do happen, voters won’t be forced to go to crowded polling places in order to cast their votes. Connecticut law doesn’t easily provide for voting by mail, especially since absentee ballots are supposed to only be given to those who can’t get to the polls.
But if the entire state is still staying at home then we’ll all have that excuse, and everyone will get an absentee ballot. If we’re lucky, voting by mail will be popular enough to push through a constitutional amendment making that the rule after the crisis is done.
Remember when tolls were the big topic of conversation? Not so much anymore.
The pandemic has exposed dangerous flaws in our health care system, most notably when it comes to hospital beds, number of trained staff, and easily available medical equipment. It’s also underscored the need for universal healthcare of some kind, whether it be the state’s public option plan or a real single-payer system. Healthcare and public health have to be the highest priorities going forward.
Second, the economic fallout is already awful, and it’s going to get worse. Connecticut could soon be facing double-digit unemployment, and helping those out of work will be vital.
The final shift in priorities has to be toward disaster preparedness.
The story of the 21st century so far has been that of a series of disasters – some man-made, some natural, some both. From 9/11 to Katrina, from the housing bubble to superstorm Sandy, and from ice storms to pandemic, we’ve been battered and caught unprepared time and again. We must get better at being proactive, and having plans and infrastructure in place long before the next disaster strikes.
Because, if we’ve learned nothing else from the past two decades, we know disaster will come again.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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