A group of people protesting state mask mandates and shut downs has gathered every Sunday for months on the corner of High and Main streets in downtown Belfast -- what is known locally as "Resistance Corner." Credit: Abigail Curtis / BDN

BELFAST, Maine — Belfast councilors are calling for more civility on “Protest Corner” following more than two hours of public debate Tuesday over the controversial anti-mask protests that take place on Sunday afternoons at the corner of Main and High streets.

But officials stopped short of restricting demonstrators at the site that’s been an epicenter for political rallies, social justice movements and other causes for decades.

“We are at a critical time in history. Civility in our country must be restored. While we will always respect an open exchange of ideas, we do not support rude behavior, ridicule or lack of respect,” Mayor Eric Sanders said, reading from a letter signed by councilors. “Civility restores trust and helps build common ground. We … call for all residents and visitors to enhance and restore all forms of civility.”

That may be a big ask. Although just about all of the 30 or so people who shared their thoughts with councilors said they are strongly in favor of free speech, many said that the anti-mask protesters seem to cross a line that is distinctly uncivil. Last month, one of the protesters at the busy intersection, whose other corners host a pizza shop and a toy store, carried a flag that said “F—- Biden,” while another held up a poster that said, “F—- Censorship #Walkaway.” One protester often uses a megaphone to shout at passerby, and none wear masks while they gather.

The protest has disrupted downtown restaurants and retailers, according to business owners, and caused some to avoid downtown while protesters are there.

“I am very concerned with the obscene signs and the megaphones being used and the aggressiveness of the protesters,” Don Hoenig of Belfast said at the meeting, conducted over Zoom. “I’m not opposed to free speech. What I’m concerned about is the level of discourse.”

Frances Pan of Belfast, said she had an unwelcome exchange with the protesters last Sunday, even though she intentionally walked on the other side of the street to avoid them.

“They yelled at me to take off my mask,” she said. “I am concerned about their loudness and yelling at people to take off their masks, and the fact that they are unmasked. Does that interfere with my right and the community’s right to be healthy?”

Some asked Belfast officials if it might be possible to move the group from that intersection to another location, such as in front of City Hall.

But others argued vehemently against such a move.

“If they are to be removed, no protests should ever be allowed on that corner in the future,” Edward Moffitt of Belfast said. “People are upset. They’re really just upset with everything, and they need to be heard.”

And Kaleigh Stanley of Northport, who organizes the weekly protests and owns a store, Midcoast Vinyl Records, on High Street, said the protesters have no intention of moving.

“Unless you guys want to cancel the Constitution or amend it in any way, this meeting seems a little pointless to me,” Stanley said, adding that she is not swayed by arguments from those who avoid the downtown while her group is there. “I feel the same — I can’t go in any shop. Because I refuse to wear a mask and I never will, so my downtown experience has been ruined … I won’t be wearing a mask and I won’t be complying with the fear-based regulations.”

Police Chief Gerry Lincoln told the council that police have received numerous complaints of noise and aggressiveness regarding the protesters, as well as complaints of harassment from the protesters themselves. Officers have been monitoring the situation, he said.

“We don’t want to infringe on anyone’s rights, and we want to make sure that safety and civility is upheld,” he said.

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