AUGUSTA, Maine — Democratic leaders in the Maine Legislature voted to require masks when lawmakers return to the State House in June even after Gov. Janet Mills’ mandate expires, sparking anger from Republicans and hinting at further resistance.
The Legislative Council, the 10-member panel of leading lawmakers that set the policies governing the capitol building, easily reached agreement to begin holding chamber meetings in the State House after using the Augusta Civic Center to do so since December and allow the public in the building for the first time as of Monday since it closed for most in March 2020.
But a fissure immediately developed along party lines about the issue of masking in the State House for lawmakers’ remaining meetings. It was driven by the Democratic governor’s decision to rescind an indoor mask mandate for fully vaccinated people and end indoor distancing requirements starting Monday in keeping with new federal recommendations.
After a long and fraught debate, Democrats approved the policy changes on a 6-2 vote with Assistant Minority Leader Joel Stetkis, R-Canaan, abstaining, and another Republican having left the meeting after indicating opposition. People will be able remove masks in outdoor spaces and lawmakers abolished a strict guest policy that allowed lawmakers to set up appointments with constituents. Contact tracing will be conducted for non-credentialed members of the public.
Republicans argued it defied federal public health science recommendations on masks. It could lead to further division in the State House after the minority party was frustrated by Democrats bypassing the need for a two-thirds vote on an initial two-year budget in March
“My question to you, Mr. Speaker, is what are you going to do when members of my caucus and possibly myself enter that building and we’re not wearing a mask?” House Minority Leader Kathleen Dillingham, R-Oxford, told House Speaker Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford. “Is there going to be a two-thirds vote to expel me?”
Democrats argued the measure would protect those who are unable to be vaccinated and indicated concern about how many people could be coming in and out of the building. Fecteau noted the U.S. CDC recommends wearing a mask if a person is not vaccinated and recommends them in crowds. Not requiring them could put the Legislature in the position of surveying if members are vaccinated, something he “wasn’t particularly interested in.”
“I would be very regretful if a decision I made here at Legislative Council led to someone getting very ill, and I could have made a decision otherwise,” Fecteau said.
Committee work is likely to continue into next week as lawmakers finish voting on bills. The Legislature is scheduled to meet nearly daily from June 3 to June 16 as it tackles three key spending proposals from Mills: a new $8.8 billion two-year budget, a borrowing plan and another on how to allocate $1.1 billion in federal aid.
The State House has been largely closed to members of the public since last year when the pandemic caused the body to vote to adjourn early. Only lawmakers, staff and third party groups like the media, deliveries and contractors have been allowed in. Initial spotty compliance with face covering mandates caused concern among nonpartisan staffers. The Legislative Council firmed up masking requirements early this year after one staffer quit.