The BDN is making the most crucial coverage of the coronavirus pandemic and its economic impact in Maine free for all readers. Click here for all coronavirus stories. You can join others committed to safeguarding this vital public service by purchasing a subscription or donating directly to the newsroom.
The owner of a Stonington dairy bar never thought posting a photo of a maskless Gov. Janet Mills on her stop to buy a lobster roll would start a political frenzy over her coronavirus restrictions, which include a face covering mandate.
But when the photo of the Democratic governor with a young employee at Stonington Ice Cream Company taken last week and posted on Saturday was widely shared by critics of Mills and her management of the pandemic, Ron Watson knew it had to come down quickly.
“There was no point in having it up,” he said.
The outcry shows how tense the political climate in Maine and U.S. has become as the coronavirus pandemic wears on. Maine has the eighth-fewest cases per capita among states, but Republicans have been critical of her handling of the outbreak while organizing protests and lawsuits over business restrictions as a gradual reopening process continues.
Masks have emerged as the most visible symbol in that debate. Even though they have been shown to reduce the spread of the virus, their use is still seen by some as a political statement on the wearer’s view of the pandemic.
A Mills executive order on April 29 required masks to be worn anytime in a public setting where social distancing — being at least six feet away from others — is “difficult to maintain.” That mostly applies to indoor public spaces like stores, but also to playgrounds, busy parking lots and lines for take-out services.
State health officials have credited Mainers for wearing masks in public and adhering to other health recommendations but many businesses are leery of enforcing mandates to wear them. The issue has become partisan. President Donald Trump has appeared in public without a mask and Democrats say they are more likely to wear a mask when leaving home, according to a May poll from the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
It’s unclear how long the governor was not wearing a mask outside the take-out stand on Wednesday. Spokespeople for Mills did not respond to requests for comment. Rep. Genevieve McDonald, D-Stonington, who was with the governor earlier in the day to view work being done on a historic sardine hauler, said Mills sometimes pulled a mask down for photos. Mills was pictured in a mask at a Wednesday memorial service outside the State House.
But the photo was shared widely in conservative circles on Facebook. Republican 2nd Congressional District candidate Adrienne Bennett — who has also appeared in public without wearing a mask — shared it with the girl’s face blurred out, although many others did not.
Bennett accused Mills of being a hypocrite, saying she should either lift an executive order that dictates when the public needs to wear masks or hold herself to the same standard.
“If Mills wont [sic] follow her own order, why should we?” she wrote.
Watson said he understood why some people might be upset — the pandemic has people stressed about their livelihoods and frustrated over business restrictions. But McDonald said the employee in the photo is a underage relative and her family is worried about the exposure.
“This positive moment for her was used as a political implement,” McDonald said of her relative. “Having your picture taken with the governor is exciting. To have it splashed across Facebook as a tool of hatred was disappointing.”