Letter from House minority to governor


Dear Gov. Ralph DLG Torres: We join our U.S. Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan in urging you to request, as soon as possible, federal declarations of a Major Disaster and an Economic Injury Disaster for the Northern Mariana Islands. 

As we are all acutely aware, our Commonwealth is facing a public health emergency and economic catastrophe of unprecedented proportions as a result of the COVID-19 global pandemic. Your recent declaration of a public health emergency in the Commonwealth, and President Donald Trump’s declaration of a national public health emergency, have certainly helped to free up resources necessary to contain and mitigate the spread of COVID-19. We commend you for acting quickly to declare the emergency even without a confirmed COVID-19 case in the Commonwealth, especially given the limited number of test kits nationwide and in our region.

Significantly greater resources would be available, however, under a federally declared major disaster, including a wide range of programs that are not available under a state of emergency. Disaster programs include financial aid for individual households, public assistance for state and local governments and nonprofit organizations, food assistance, unemployment benefits, small business relief, legal services, crisis counseling, and hazard mitigation to prevent long-term risk to life and property. 

As you know, a federal declaration of a major disaster is initiated with a gubernatorial request to the President. Indeed, in a letter to federal agency heads on March 13, President Trump indicated that he would be inclined to approve gubernatorial requests for a major disaster declaration under the Stafford Act, in connection with the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Specifically, Mr. Trump wrote: “After careful consideration, I believe that the disaster is of such severity and magnitude nationwide that requests for a declaration of a major disaster as set forth in section 401(a) of the Stafford Act may be appropriate. 

“I encourage all governors and tribal leaders to consider requesting federal assistance under this provision of the Stafford Act, pursuant to the statutory criteria. I stand ready to expeditiously consider any such request.” 

Governor, please make that request to the President for a major disaster declaration.

Second, we understand that a gubernatorial request for a federal declaration of economic injury related to COVID-19 is required to make low-interest Economic Injury Disaster Loans available to businesses and nonprofit organizations in the Commonwealth. These loans were provided by the Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Appropriations Act, which was signed into law on March 6. A gubernatorial request for an economic injury declaration related to COVID-19 must include certification that at least five small businesses in the community have suffered substantial economic injury.

Governor, as you know, numerous businesses in the Commonwealth have suffered substantial economic injury as a result of COVID-19. The coronavirus has directly contributed to the near-total collapse of our primary industry: tourism. Flights from all of our major tourism markets have been cancelled or suspended, hotel occupancy has dropped to single digits, employees across the private and nonprofit sectors have suffered layoffs or had their work hours reduced, and numerous businesses have shut down or are on the brink of closure.

Governor, please make that request to SBA for an economic injury declaration.

Finally, we recognize that our Commonwealth is in a complex and rapidly evolving crisis situation. We applaud the measures you have enacted thus far to protect public health and safety, including your directives ordering more rigorous screening and monitoring protocols for incoming travelers, banning large public gatherings, urging social distancing, and granting broad authority to the Commonwealth Health Care Corp. and other agencies to respond to the COVID-19 threat. 

A number of critical issues affecting our most vulnerable residents and businesses have come to our attention since your declaration of a public health emergency, that we believe warrant further amendments or additions to your executive orders. We offer the following recommendations: 

1. Prohibit any disconnections of critical utilities (including power, water, wastewater, telecommunications, and internet) for nonpayment during the state of emergency;
2. Prohibit any evictions of residential or commercial tenants, including any late fees or penalties, during the state of emergency;
3. Prohibit any foreclosures on residential or commercial properties, including any late fees or penalties, during the state of emergency;
4. Extend the deadlines for tax filings, including individual, business gross, and corporate income taxes, and waive any late fees or penalties during the state of emergency;
5. Relax restrictions on the use of the government’s sick leave bank during the state of emergency to allow government employees to self-quarantine, to seek COVID-19 care, to care for a family member with a COVID-19 diagnosis, or to care for a child whose school or daycare has closed as a result of COVID-19 concerns;
6. Direct the heads of all government agencies and departments to provide hygiene supplies, including sanitizers, soap, water, and facemasks; ensure regular cleaning and disinfecting of all facilities, and especially “high-touch” surfaces; implement rigorous social distancing protocols and allow for virtual meetings; and allow the maximum number of employees to work remotely from home, adjust schedules, and alternate shifts as necessary, while ensuring the continued delivery of essential public services; and
7. Implement a Commonwealth-wide lockdown on social gatherings of any size in any public venue for recreation, food and beverage service (other than takeout and delivery), fitness, and similar activities for at least two weeks. 

Finally, Governor, we recognize the need to work together, regardless of party lines, to address the deep fiscal challenges afflicting our government. One way to facilitate this spirit of cooperation is to ensure transparency and sharing of information. To that end we urge that you provide all the members of the Legislature with the weekly fiscal status reports that you have instructed the Secretary of Finance and the Office of Management and Budget to submit pursuant to Directive 13 of Amended Executive Order 2020-04. The better informed we are in the Legislature, the more supportive we can be of your administration’s endeavors to stabilize and strengthen our government’s fiscal health and maintain the delivery of public services.

We also urge you to include all members of the Legislature in the effort to identify solutions to the difficult challenges we face. We stand ready to work with your administration and with our colleagues in the Legislature on bipartisan initiatives to provide relief and protections to the people we serve as effectively and as soon as possible, and to pave the way for a more resilient community and economy in the long run. These efforts may include, for example, a Commonwealth-wide unemployment insurance program, paid family leave, universal basic healthcare, and sensible and equitable tax reform.

We believe that in every crisis there is an opportunity—to improve, to lift up, to empower, to collaborate, to heal and come back stronger. Please do not hesitate to reach out to us for dialogue. We are committed to working together to help our community get through this crisis and back on its feet.

Rep. Ed Propst, Precinct 1
Rep. Christina Sablan, Precinct 2
Rep. Edmund Villagomez, Precinct 3
Rep. Sheila Babauta, Precinct 4
Rep. Richard Lizama, Precinct 5
Rep. Donald Manglona, Precinct 7

Contributing Author

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