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HOULTON, Maine — The most recent rally to protest the state’s coronavirus-related restrictions violated the governor’s order prohibiting gatherings of more than 10 people during the pandemic, an organizer said.
The Saturday rally also violated an Augusta ordinance requiring a permit for gatherings of more than 200 people on foot, according to the state representative who organizes the rallies.
Saturday’s rally was the second one. The first was on Patriot’s Day, April 20, when more than 200 people attended, triggering a letter from Augusta Police Department to state Rep. Chris Johansen, R-Monticello, warning the rally organizer that he must follow the city ordinance for future gatherings.
“Augusta’s ordinance does not apply to folks in vehicles so I plan on limiting those on foot to under 200,” Johansen wrote on a Facebook post. “The authorities are trying to put me in the position of violating people’s First Amendment rights.”
Johansen said on the Tuesday prior to the rally he knew he wouldn’t be able to get a permit due to Gov. Janet Mills’ prohibition on gatherings of more than 10 people during this stage of the pandemic, but he said he would try to follow the city ordinance for the upcoming rally.
“I’ll try to limit it to 200 people walking, so it’ll still be in violation of the governor’s order [but follow city ordinance]. But you have no other way to address the government,” he said.
Augusta Police Chief Jared Mills said he welcomed the protestors’ right to free expression, but that it must be done without violating the ordinance.
“This letter in no way serves to discourage or prohibit anyone from a peaceful assembly or exercising their constitutional rights, and it simply explains the process to ensure the safety of everyone in an event with more than 200 people,” he said. “We invite and encourage any future organizers of events in the city of Augusta that they feel will be more than 200 people to please work with our department to ensure the safety and security of all involved.”
He also said that even if they were unable to issue permits due to the governor’s executive order, police would work with individuals and groups to ensure safety and provide alternative ways of protest that were within the confines of the law.
Saturday’s rally, by most estimates including Johansen’s, was even larger than the first, which would put it again in violation of the Augusta ordinance. Despite this, Johansen said police were cooperative throughout the protest.
“The police did a very good job,” he said.
Johansen said he was holding the rallies because he felt that the state government was not doing enough to provide for families that have suffered due to the effects of the lockdown, which has left thousands in the state jobless.
“I’m getting calls from a mother that’s self-employed, and she can’t feed her children,” he said. “It’s not a matter of not making the mortgage payment or the car payments, they’ve got no money coming in at all.”
He called for a reopening of the state’s economy, albeit one that would have some limits and be guided by science.
Mills’ plan to reopen the economy, which was unveiled on Tuesday, will occur in stages, with businesses such as personal care services, drive-in movie theaters and outdoor recreation allowed to reopen for the first stage starting Friday.
But limits on gatherings won’t change until the second stage on June 1, when they will increase from no more than 10 to a maximum of 50. There is no definite date given as to when this new limit will expire, allowing for full gatherings again.
Johansen drove nearly three hours to lead the rally in Augusta. He estimated there were nearly a dozen other residents from The County who took part in the rally, though he said there may have been more if any had remained in their cars.
He said he was also joined by several other state representatives from The County, including John DeVeau of Caribou.
Johansen declined to name any of the other representatives who planned to attend Saturday, but a post on his Facebook page lists former state Reps. Heather Sirocki of Scarborough and Larry Dunphy of Embden as participants in the upcoming protest.
Watch: Protesters gather at Blaine House