Lawmakers split over mask requirement for special session next week

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Sep. 23—State House leaders again split, largely along party lines, over requiring the use of face coverings when they meet in person for a special session next week.

The 10-member Legislative Council, which includes leaders of both parties in the House and the Senate as well as the Legislature's two presiding officers, voted 7 to 3 to reinstate a policy requiring face coverings for lawmakers, their staffs and visitors to the State House next week.

The Legislature is returning for a special session next Wednesday to vote on recommendations from a special commission working to redraw the state's voting districts based on the 2020 Census data.

Citing the more contagious delta variant of COVID-19 and near record daily case counts in Maine, House Speaker Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, said the policy was being adopted to protect not only lawmakers but others they may be in contact with, including young children or other family members unable to be vaccinated.

"I'd rather be safe than sorry and this is a way to be one step closer to safe than sorry," Fecteau said.

Assistant House Minority Leader Joel Stetkis, R-Canaan, asked who the council was looking to protect "at this stage in the game?"

"I would think we are looking to protect people back in our own communities," Fecteau said. "Our families, our kids who still remain unable to get vaccinated. We clearly know even with someone being vaccinated you can still contract the virus, and carry the virus, and spread it to other people."

He also noted immunocompromised people, who may be unable for medical reasons to be vaccinated.

"If putting a mask on for a couple of hours next Wednesday helps prevent the spread of this virus to my colleagues and then to their neighbors and their family members, it is totally 100 percent worth every second that the mask is on my face," Fecteau said.

Disagreement over mask requirements at the State House have created a variety of problems for lawmakers, including several who were stripped of their committee assignments by Fecteau in May for failing to comply with a masking requirement that was later lifted in June.

Thursday's debate came as state health officials reported 716 new COVID-19 cases and two additional deaths attributed to the virus. Early this week the state surpassed 1,000 COVID-19 related deaths.

Two of the council's 10 members, Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash and Senate Majority Leader Eloise Vitelli, D-Arrowsic, announced they tested positive for COVID-19 on Sept. 15, despite being fully vaccinated. Jackson and Vitelli both said they were recovering well and had experienced only mild symptoms and both also supported reinstating a mask requirement for the Legislature.

Jackson said he had recently tested negative for the virus but intended to continue his quarantine at home for the rest of the week to be on the safe side.

He said he had empathy for those who were tired of dealing with the precautions, but added that condition with COVID-19 are now as bad as it's been in Maine since the pandemic hit the state in March of 2020.

"Under every matrix, every metric, every way you would measure this, today we are in a lot worse position than we've ever been as far as cases across counties, every county across Maine," Jackson said. He said the council did agree to remove the masks when case counts were low in Maine, but the surge from the delta variant warranted reinstating the mask requirement to protect against transmission from asymptomatic carriers.

Sen. Matthew Poliout, R-Augusta, announced he tested positive for COVID-19 in February. He voted in support of the masking requirement saying he was doing so to avoid a vaccine mandate for the Legislature, noting he would resign his Senate seat if that became the requirement, insisting he wouldn't take the vaccine.

"I'm OK with wearing a mask if it means I can keep my choice around whether or not I get vaccinated," Pouliot said. Pouliot also urged his colleagues to adopt a policy that set a threshold, possibly based on daily case averages, as a way of deciding when face coverings would be required and when they wouldn't.

But three of the Republican leaders pushed back against reissuing the mandate for masks saying they were willing to comply with it but didn't want to make it compulsory. Senate Minority Leader Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, said he didn't believe COVID-19 was ever going away and with a large number of lawmakers now vaccinated it made no sense to keep the mask requirement in place.

"It's been going on for a year and half now, pushing close to two years," Timberlake said. "It's something that's going to be here forever, in my opinion, it's not going away. It's never going to be eradicated."

House Minority Leader Kathleen Dillingham, R-Oxford, said she too would comply with the masking requirement but preferred other lawmakers were allowed to make that choice for themselves. Dillingham also said the assumption that opposition to a masking mandate meant they didn't care about their constituents or each other was untrue.

"When you hear a difference of opinion, it's not in the form that we don't care about people," Dillingham said. "We fall on a difference of whether it is mandated, whether we allow people to choose for themselves, what they feel is safe for themselves, whether you need to get vaccinated or you feel safe that you need to wear a mask, versus government stepping in and telling you that you have to."

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