The Center Square | by Christian Wade | September 27, 2021
(The Center Square) – Lawmakers and visitors to the Maine State House will be required to wear masks under COVID-19 restrictions reinstated by legislative leaders, who are divided over the issue along party lines.
The COVID-19 Prevention Policy approved by the Legislative Council on Thursday mirrors one set last year by lawmakers in response to the pandemic, but won’t require legislative committees to meet remotely. The 7-3 vote by the panel to continue the masking requirement went mostly along party lines, with Republicans opposing it.
The restrictions will be in place during a special session of the Legislature this week to consider new political maps based on the 2020 census population count.
House Speaker Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, said the restrictions are needed with the highly contagious delta variant driving up COVID-19 infection rates in the state.
He said the situation has “changed rather dramatically” from the last time the Legislature met in person, citing the current average of 400 new cases per day.
Senate Majority Leader Eloise Vitelli, D-Arrowsic, who recently tested positive for COVID-19 despite being vaccinated, was among those who urged keeping the restrictions in place for the upcoming session and beyond.
“I am convinced that given where we are with this virus that we have to use every tool at our disposal to try to keep it at bay,” she said.
But Republicans pushed back against the proposal to extend the restrictions for the upcoming session.
House Minority Leader Kathleen Dillingham, R-Oxford, said lawmakers should be allowed to make that choice about wearing a mask for themselves.
She said some lawmakers can’t wear masks for medical reasons and most instead wear face shields, which won’t be allowed as an alternative under the policy.
Dillingham said the debate over masks centers on “whether we allow people to choose for themselves, what they feel is safe for themselves, whether you need to get vaccinated or you feel safe that you need to wear a mask, versus the government stepping in and telling you that you have to.”
Maine has lifted statewide mask requirements in most of the state, but Republicans have criticized the ongoing COVID-19 restrictions at the Capitol.
Earlier this year, six Republican lawmakers and one Libertarian were stripped of committee assignments for refusing to comply with the masking rule.
Sen. Matthew Pouliot, R-Augusta, was the only Republican on the council to vote for the restrictions but said he only did so to avoid a vaccine mandate.
“I’m OK with wearing a mask if it means I can keep my choice around whether or not I get vaccinated,” he told fellow lawmakers.
Pouliot, who tested positive for COVID-19 in February, told fellow lawmakers he would resign if required to get vaccinated to work at the Capitol.