Orono Council Chair Tom Perry (center-left) reads through notes prepared for the councilors before each meeting, as the council meets in Orono on Monday. Credit: Sawyer Loftus / BDN

Leaders in Orono are calling for clear direction from Gov. Janet Mills as the spread of COVID-19 accelerates but the state leaves key decisions on mask-wearing, public meetings and other health measures to local governments.

During a Town Council meeting Monday, Town Manager Sophie Wilson and other councilors expressed frustration over the lack of direct action from the state that the Mills administration had previously taken while the governor’s emergency declaration was in effect. Until that expired at the end of June, the governor could require universal mask-wearing at schools and in other public places such as stores, and limit customer capacity in public places to limit the coronavirus’ spread. In addition, local governments could easily opt to hold fully remote public meetings.

But the Mills administration has said it’s not considering new mandates now that the state of emergency is over, even as the delta variant’s spread has made Penobscot County a coronavirus hot spot and stretched hospitals’ capacity.

“It’s frustrating that the state is not acting. I mean, it seemed very kind of cut and dried last year that action needed to happen,” Council Meghan Gardner said. “Now, we’ve gone through a year plus and there’s a lot of political stuff weighing into it. We need direction from the state.”

In Orono, that has meant the town and the local school board have used their discretion on requiring masks and holding meetings that allow people to participate remotely. The RSU 26 school board was among the first in the Bangor region to make masks mandatory for the new school year. And masks are now required again in town facilities, Wilson said.

Rather than being informed by state directives, they’re informed by state and federal guidance that amounts to merely a forceful suggestion compared to a mask mandate from the governor, she said.

Another policy area presenting some difficulty now is how the town holds its public meetings.

Government bodies could hold entirely remote meetings throughout the pandemic. Now, a new state law allows remote meetings, but makes in-person meetings the default option. The law sets out a handful of circumstances under which a town or other government body can hold a fully remote meeting, such as public emergencies, inclement weather or illness. 

In Orono, the town’s meeting policy encourages all members of the council or a committee to attend in person except for the list of acceptable reasons. The chair of a given committee or the council is always expected to be physically present in the council chambers, forcing meetings into a hybrid format, Wilson said. 

That hybrid format makes it difficult for councilors to interact with the public as well as other members, she said. 

Those members attending in person sit in the council chambers with a Zoom meeting displayed on a large screen. That screen shows everyone who’s attending remotely. Since those attending in person have to wear masks, hiding their facial expressions, an important part of nonverbal communication is lost, Wilson said.

The town would prefer to be able to return to fully remote meetings, but it has to stay within the bounds of the law absent another directive from the governor.

“I know we like to stay in between the lines because it’s safer there, but I don’t think we’re going to get the safest answer, which is if you want to go fully remote the state is not going to tell us to do that,” Wilson said. 

Council Chair Tom Perry wondered whether it would be worth petitioning Mills to make changes. The council charged Wilson with figuring out the next steps it could take.

A spokesperson for Mills did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday. 

Sawyer Loftus

Sawyer Loftus is a reporter covering Old Town, Orono and the surrounding areas. A recent graduate of the University of Vermont, Sawyer grew up in Vermont where he's worked for Vermont Public Radio, The...