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Republican leaders in the Maine Legislature were quick to criticize Gov. Janet Mills’ executive order last Friday strengthening the enforcement of Maine’s mask mandate.
Despite the scientific evidence and public health guidance pointing to masks as an important part of the ongoing effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, a vocal minority continues to push back against this common sense tool. That can create difficulties for businesses and their employees.
“I really hope the governor knows what she is doing,” said Sen. Jeff Timberlake, who leads Maine Senate Republicans. “I am concerned how people react, at least in rural Maine about this. I am scared to death for the average people who are running little general stores, often alone, who must now confront customers who may already be stressed out over the pandemic when they walk in the door.”
“There is great concern with having small business workers, in some cases teenagers, charged with ensuring compliance with executive orders,” said Rep. Kathleen Dillingham, the House Republican leader. “Placing such a burden on employees who are not trained in this area and forcing them into situations of conflict can compromise an individual’s mental health and safety.”
Those are reasonable concerns, which have unfortunately already proven justified. On Friday, for example, a Hiram man allegedly dumped his cart of groceries and struck the owner of a Cornish grocery store with his car after being asked to wear a mask inside the store. The owner was not seriously hurt, according to a report from News Center Maine, and the man has been charged with felony reckless conduct.
What was notably absent from those concerned statements from Republican leaders on Friday, however, was a plea for people who don’t want to wear masks around others to think about the store owners and employees, and to make the choice not to escalate — no matter how stressed they are.
In their statements on Friday, Timberlake and Dillingham correctly diagnosed a problem but failed to play a more active part in the solution. Timberlake did not make the same mistake Monday morning, stating clearly on the George Hale and Ric Tyler radio show that Mainers should wear masks to be respectful of people running and working at businesses.
“First thing I’m going to say is, everybody ought to be respectful and wear their masks when they go in and out of the store. OK? Now, you’ve got a Republican saying that, so probably I’ll take a beating for that the rest of the day,” Timberlake said.
He’s spot on with that encouragement.
“But in my world, it’s not about what I believe, it’s about what we think is to be respectful for a whole bunch of people — the store clerk that’s in there, you don’t want to put them in that predicament of having to talk to you, and you don’t want to have to make them have to deal with these situations,” Timberlake continued. “It’s not about whether you believe the mask mandate or not believe [the mask mandate], this is about being respectful to the people running the stores.”
Dillingham stressed around Thanksgiving that Mainers should “get back to supporting and caring for each other” and “lend a hand instead of sharing derision and continuing division.” A great way for people to support and care about store employees, and their fellow customers, would be to follow the rules about masks when going into a business.
There are a great many reasons to be stressed out over the pandemic — the legitimate concern about catching or spreading a potentially deadly virus, the painful economic toll that has seen businesses closed and jobs lost, the anxiety and worry that can feel unescapable, among others. It’s a long list. Why would anyone want to be the source of more stress for the people in their communities who bag their groceries or make their lunch?
“Maine’s retailers, grocers and restaurants employ one in four Maine workers. That means you have a family member, a friend or a neighbor that is relying on that job to survive,” Curtis Picard, the President & CEO of the Retail Association of Maine, said in a statement Friday included in a press release from the governor’s office. “If you don’t wear a mask, don’t try to enter a store. It’s that simple: No mask, no service, no exceptions.”
It’s a mistake for any elected official, regardless of their party or personal position on masks and COVID-19 precautions generally, not to emphasize everyone’s individual ability — we’d say responsibility — to choose compassion and order over aggression and chaos. We were glad to hear Timberlake’s message about respecting other people on Monday.
Here’s our message: Don’t make teenage cashiers feel unsafe. Don’t make a bad year even worse for the frontline workers who are just trying to do their jobs. Stand up for law and order. Think about your neighbors. Please wear a mask.