WINDHAM — Residents across the Lakes Region should soon be able to verify if their favorite local businesses are in compliance with state-mandated COVID-19 protocols, and they’ll have a local process to file a complaint if they’re not.
The “Keep Sebago Lakes Region Healthy” program, funded by a $205,000 state grant, will train local businesses and staff on best health and safety practices and will serve as a local reporting agency for customers with concerns about noncompliance. It has also launched an educational campaign for residents on how to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
The Windham Economic Development Corporation and the Sebago Lakes Region Chamber of Commerce are behind the two-pronged initiative.
“Given that we want healthy people and a healthy economy in our region, we think the Keep Sebago Lakes Region Healthy campaign is of the utmost importance right now,” SLRCC Executive Director Robin Mullins said in an email.
Mullins, who ran the Hannaford corporate training department for 22 years before joining the chamber a couple of years ago, is developing an online training program for Lakes Region business owners and employees, which she hopes will be ready to roll out by the end of the month.
The training will provide strategies to prevent the spread of the coronavirus and guidelines for following state-mandated safety protocols. Mullins will be able to track which businesses participate in the training program, which has to be approved by state health officials, and she will offer in-person visits to businesses “as necessary to ensure consistency throughout the region.”
In order to reopen now, businesses must commit to following industry-specific requirements through a form submitted to the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development. Businesses can download a door sign or website badge to show their commitment, but but there is no way for a customer to verify the business is meeting all state requirements.
With the local campaign, the SLRCC and WEDC will certify that a business completed the online training program, which will cover all state requirements. Mullins said they will likely give businesses that complete the training a certificate or a sticker to display.
If a customer believes a business is violating state mandates, they can report their concerns to the chamber or WEDC, and Mullins and Bartell will investigate in-person.
Mullins said this localized approach is “more inclusive than punitive.” Instead of immediately elevating a complaint to the state level, Mullins said she and Bartell can reach out to the businesses first. More often than not, Mullins said, she believes violations will come down to a lack of knowledge. But if an issue goes beyond that, they will report the violations to the state.
Heather Johnson, commissioner for the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development, said compliance enforcement benefits from the local approach.
“I think the more local we can make all the work, the better. The local community will certainly know the institution in a much better way and more effective way than we will,” she said in a phone interview Monday.
The program is part of the state’s “Keep Maine Healthy” plan.
“By us taking this on locally (and) working with business and educating them, (it) takes some of the pressure off the state,” Mullins said.
A public education poster.Courtesy of the Sebago Lakes Region Chamber of Commerce
Windham is one of 96 other cities and towns awarded financial assistance from the state through Oct. 31 to fund its program. Each municipality had to submit a plan outline and a budget proposal for approval by the Maine Center for Disease Control.
The WEDC and the chamber received a grant for $205,000; only nine other municipalities received grants larger than that.
The chamber serves nine towns: Casco, Gray, Limerick, Limington, Naples, New Gloucester, Raymond, Sebago, Standish and Windham.
Raymond, Sebago and Standish also received some funding and they will coordinate with each other to avoid repetition among services, said WEDC Director Tom Bartell
Bridgton, which is not part of the SLRCC, received funding for about $40,000. Bartell and Mullins said they are working closely with the town managers in all 10 towns.
The program also includes funding for an in-person monitor at Dundee Park in Windham, construction of public bathrooms at the Windham town office and an intern from Saint .Joseph’s College who will work with Mullins through September.
Johnson said that while the state has not announced plans for financial assistance programs beyond October, “whatever we will do come fall will look different because the needs will be different.”
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