Maine’s legislative leaders have recently been mired in a debate over face mask requirements at the State House even as lawmakers are expected to consider more than 1,000 bills this session, as well as two spending plans worth more than $8 billion.
Democrats are trying to strengthen the Legislature’s mask policy after a committee clerk quit because of fears that Republicans are skirting the rules, while Republicans have said that the rules have not been made clear.
Signs throughout the capitol complex advise that masks “must be worn in legislative spaces.” That includes hallways, committee rooms and the House and the Senate chambers and offices — unless staff or lawmakers are alone or physically distanced by six feet or more, according to coronavirus safety rules previously passed by legislative leaders.
This Thursday, Legislative leaders will meet to consider updating their mask policy. Republican Senate leader Jeff Timberlake has signaled that he’s willing to strengthen that policy.
But in an encounter that has since made headlines, about a half-dozen Republican lawmakers could be seen not wearing masks in the State House in a video livestreamed by Republican Rep. Shelley Rudnicki of Fairfield on Jan. 5.
At one point in the video, Rudnicki — who has been protesting coronavirus restrictions throughout the pandemic — approaches Monticello Republican Rep. Chris Johansen in a legislative office room and inaccurately said, “We’re in a private office, so he does not have to have his mask on.”
At the time, it was written off as a misunderstanding over mask-wearing in private offices.
But last week, the issue of face coverings emerged yet again following reports that Rudnicki and several other GOP House members have been wearing so-called chin shields: a clear, plastic cup that rises just above the nostrils and is open at the top.
Sometimes referred to as spit shields or half-shields, they are marketed to food workers, but public health experts don’t consider them effective in reducing the spread of the coronavirus.
The issue flared at a recent subcommittee meeting that included legislative leaders, when House Republican leader Rep. Kathleen Dillingham of Oxford confronted House Speaker Ryan Fecteau and Senate President Troy Jackson, both Democrats, over a joint statement they had issued chastising GOP lawmakers for attempts to skirt the mask rules.
Fecteau and Jackson’s statement urged lawmakers to “show the same fortitude that school-age children have shown throughout this pandemic by following basic health and safety protocols.”
“To imply that any of our members that are trying to do the job that they were elected to do somehow are less than children … goes beyond words of what I think we need to be dealing with right now,” Dillingham said.
She insisted that the Legislature’s rules are unclear, but Jackson wasn’t convinced.
“So it doesn’t seem like this is really that big of an ask for people to do so that we can get this Legislature, the 130th, to operate in the most safe and effective manner,” Jackson said.
The meeting grew increasingly tense as leaders debated whether the Legislature’s rules are explicit about what constitutes a face shield or a mask.
“I have to be completely honest. I never anticipated that when we said face shields were an acceptable alternative, that anyone would wear a face shield that covers only half their face,” Fecteau said.
State houses across the country have become a microcosm of the partisan divide over what public health experts say is a simple step in preventing spread of the virus.
Many Republican lawmakers in other states have ignored masking requirements or ditched them altogether in some of the legislative chambers that they control, according to a partial compilation of rules by the National Conference of State Legislatures.
State houses have also become hotspots for the spread of COVID-19: nearly 200 lawmakers contracted the disease through November, according to the Associated Press — a total that did not include New Hampshire House Speaker Dick Hinch, who died from the disease in December after attending a caucus meeting where GOP legislators did not mask or physically distance.
That GOP resistance to masks appeared to have been on the mind of Fecteau during last week’s meeting.
“It felt like to me that members were trying to find a way to skirt the rules around wearing either a full face covering or a face shield that has been commonly used since the pandemic started,” he said.
But Dillingham said her members are trying to abide by the rules and that most do.
“My members are trying to comply, even though they may not agree, they are trying to comply simply so they can try to do their job,” she said.
Last week, Dillingham and 69 other Republican legislators cosigned a letter criticizing Democrats for seeking to have Capitol Police Chief Russ Gauvin put on administrative leave for his controversial social media posts, including one promoting the baseless claim that face masks make people “stupid” and susceptible to authoritarian control.
Gauvin, whose agency is partially responsible for enforcing the Legislature’s mask policy, has since been placed on leave.
The GOP letter, which was later promoted by the Maine Republican Party, framed Democrats’ concerns over Gauvin’s posts as an attempt at “ideological conformity,” rather than what Democrats describe as concern that the capitol’s chief public safety officer promoted views counter to his professional duties.
Republicans, meanwhile, continue to vent frustration that the Legislature is doing most of its work virtually.
Fecteau said it’s the only way to ensure that its work is completed this session.
“We have to keep the staff and members healthy. And that means, first and foremost, having everyone complying with wearing a mask,” he said.
This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.