Police are investigating a report of a man displaying his gun after someone pointed out that he wasn’t wearing a face mask inside of a Dunkin’ Donuts. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

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A public health campaign that Bangor launched a month ago to encourage people to wear face coverings in public has gained statewide attention and funding after a month of being primarily online.

And the campaign will take on additional importance as Gov. Janet Mills steps up enforcement of the state’s face covering requirement in a handful of cities including Bangor and coastal counties popular with tourists.

In early June, Bangor started the “Mask Up for ME” public awareness campaign through a city partnership with local health care organizations called the Community Health Leadership Board. The campaign aimed to encourage people to wear face coverings when in public to limit the spread of COVID-19, but it was limited to social media posts because the city did not have the resources to promote it in any other way, according to Patty Hamilton, Bangor’s director of public health.

But earlier this week, Bangor received state funding to ramp up the campaign as well as praise from the governor and state public health officials.

“The city of Bangor has its own face covering campaign that we think is quite clever and we’re looking at advancing that,” Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew said at a news conference on Wednesday.

The state awarded Bangor about $158,000 to promote “Mask Up for ME” and to undertake some efforts, such as promoting outdoor dining at restaurants, that can reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission.

Bangor plans to spend more than half the total amount — about $82,000 — on TV and radio ads and to develop informational material on the importance of wearing face coverings. Those materials could include sidewalk stickers and flyers, Hamilton said.

The campaign will also provide face coverings for residents who can’t afford their own through monetary and mask donations from community members.

The city has arranged for mask donations to be dropped off at the Bangor Police Department, St. Joseph Hospital, Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center and Gold Star Cleaners on Union Street.

Recent research, supported by anecdotal evidence, shows face coverings are effective in controlling the spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, which is transmitted through respiratory droplets. In Springfield, Missouri, two barbers in May wore masks while infected with the coronavirus and cut dozens of clients’ hair. None of those clients, who were also wearing face masks, tested positive.

Cloth face coverings are different from surgical face masks or N-95 masks, which offer reliable protection to people who wear them from contracting the disease. Cloth masks offer little protection from catching the disease from someone who is not wearing a face covering, health officials have said, but can reduce transmission significantly if worn by an infected person who may or may not show any symptoms.

Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Nirav Shah has issued consistent reminders about the importance of wearing face coverings in public. But choosing to wear them or not has become a polarizing and often partisan issue.

Despite two executive orders from Mills mandating the use of face coverings in public, many Bangor businesses have not required their customers to wear face coverings inside their restaurants or stores.

Mills announced Wednesday that she planned a third executive order requiring that business owners in seven coastal counties and four cities, including Bangor and Brewer, enforce face covering rules for customers and employees.

But the public health awareness campaign does not focus on enforcement. It aims to build voluntary community support and encourage more people to wear masks in public.

“People didn’t understand why they had to wear masks and it was becoming politicized. We wanted to take the politics out of it,” Hamilton said. “We want to keep our businesses open and our communities safe and if we all wear masks, that’s a way to accomplish that.”

Bangor Mayor Clare Davitt has been promoting the campaign on her social media for weeks. She said she hopes the new funding will allow Bangor to spread more awareness about the importance of wearing face coverings in public.

“The virus doesn’t pick a political party,” she said. “I’m hopeful the public health campaign will be a way to bridge the gap.”