Dear Gov. Ralph DLG Torres: Thank you for your letter of March 21, and for the details you have provided on your efforts to secure federal assistance for the Commonwealth to address the public health and economic impacts of COVID-19.
In particular, we applaud you for making the request to the U.S. Small Business Administration for an Economic Injury Disaster Declaration. The Saipan Chamber of Commerce and its partners also deserve praise for cooperating with your administration and moving quickly to submit the last of the required worksheets to you on March 20. And thankfully, the SBA has responded quickly in issuing the Economic Injury Disaster declaration and making much-needed loans available to help the Commonwealth’s struggling businesses keep afloat.
We also appreciate that you have agreed to make the request to President Donald J. Trump for a Major Disaster declaration. At least two other governors, Gov. Cuomo of New York and Gov. Inslee of Washington, have already asked for a federal Major Disaster declaration, and Gov. Leon Guerrero of Guam has announced that she will be seeking one as well.
It is, indeed, an unprecedented use of the Stafford Act for the President to declare a Major Disaster in response to a pandemic. But COVID-19 is as much a natural catastrophe as a super typhoon, and the impacts to life and property no less dire. Although critical emergency protective resources are now available to the Commonwealth under the national state of emergency, much more expansive assistance is needed that would be released under a federal declaration of a Major Disaster. In recent days, we have fielded inquiries from anxious constituents specifically about disaster food stamps, disaster unemployment benefits, and disaster legal services. A federal declaration of a Major Disaster would make these and many other programs available to our people. Please let us know if we can be of assistance in preparing or supporting your request.
Thank you, also, for accepting our invitation for bipartisan collaboration. Regarding your COVID-19 briefing at your conference room last week, we received notice via a WhatsApp message that was forwarded from the Speaker’s office approximately 2.5 hours before the meeting. Because we have been making a conscientious effort to abide by the urgent recommendations of public health officials as well as the directives of your emergency declaration, to avoid large gatherings in order to stop the spread of the coronavirus, we were concerned about all of us attending the meeting in person. We did inquire whether teleconferencing was an option for this meeting, but received no response, though the Speaker’s Office attempted to reach out to your office. Ultimately, we agreed to send two of our minority members to the meeting—Rep. Villagomez and Rep. Babauta—while the rest of us participated via a group call, on Rep. Babauta’s cell phone.
So, to be clear, governor, all of the members of the minority attended your briefing, listening in on the discussion and submitting questions for Rep. Babauta and Rep. Villagomez to ask. In the future, we respectfully request and urge that you utilize available technology to make remote participation in all your meetings possible, consistent with your executive order and the advice of public health experts to practice social distancing. Crowded meetings in your conference room, with all the members of the Legislature, along with the members of your COVID-19 Task Force and staff, are neither safe nor wise at this time.
Lastly, in the spirit of unity, we continue to hope for your favorable response to our requests for greater financial transparency from your administration, and for amendments to your emergency directives in order to expand protections for the Commonwealth’s citizens and businesses. Our recommendations for executive order amendments are in line with the actions already taken by state and local governments across the nation, and are also based on the concerns brought to us by constituents throughout the Commonwealth. In this state of emergency, people must be protected from losing their homes, livelihoods, and access to critical utilities. Taxpayers need relief from upcoming deadlines and penalties. Government employees showing up to work must be protected from infection to the greatest extent possible, and they must be assured more flexibility and access to sick leave if needed to care for themselves and their families.
And, as soon as possible, we need a mandatory Commonwealth-wide lockdown on social gatherings in any public venue for at least the next two weeks. Despite your emergency declaration and public outreach urging residents to stay home, we continue to receive reports from worried citizens about parties, novenas, cockfights, crowded gaming establishments, etc. We believe that a higher level of enforcement is necessary at this point, and we urge you to take that next step. We also urge that you implement a strict, mandatory quarantine for all incoming travelers, enforceable by fines and penalties, similar to that recently ordered by Hawaii’s Gov. Ige and in accordance with the CNMI Emergency Health Powers Act, 3 CMC §§ 2181 et seq.
Thank you for your consideration of our requests. We, too, look forward to continued dialogue and engagement with your administration in navigating the path ahead, for the sake of the community we were all elected to serve.
HOUSE MINORITY BLOC (Special to the Saipan Tribune)
The House of Representatives’ minority bloc is composed of 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; and Rep. Donald Manglona, Precinct 7.