Rep. Jeff Evangelos, I-Friendship, speaks at a 2015 rally outside the State House in Augusta. He is among lawmakers frustrated by a slower rollout of the 2021 legislative session that has been prompted by the coronavirus pandemic. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — A sharp exchange between liberal lawmakers and a top Democrat over State House coronavirus protocols illustrates the growing frustration some feel as a pandemic-altered Maine Legislature slowly ramps up work in 2021.

The Democrats in control of the Legislature sent a letter to lawmakers on Thursday reminding them of policies on masks and room capacity limits as committees prepare to meet this week. It turned into a reply-all email thread with two lawmakers airing pressure from constituents about not being visibly at work.

“What am I supposed to say to these front line low paid workers as to why I get to stay home as their ‘representative’ and they have to go outside and work?” said Rep. Jeff Evangelos, I-Friendship, in a Friday response.

Sen. David Miramant, D-Camden, followed up, saying the state should have figured out how to conduct business in person safely and that discouraging members from meeting in person would limit lawmakers’ abilities to make deals and understand each other.

Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, replied to all lawmakers again to say it was lawmakers’ duty to operate remotely, noting a legislative staffer had recently tested positive for the virus and other employees “shouldn’t have to worry about whether or not we have their backs.” After an Evangelos reply, Jackson told him to “get a hold of yourself.”

It shows bipartisan frustration as the Maine Legislature has played a limited role in the virus response since leaders of both parties adjourned in mid-March to hand authority to Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, to manage the pandemic. Minority Republicans clamored for more say in the response over the summer, but they rejected two Democratic efforts to return, saying the majority party did not consult them on the scope of a special session.

Sessions typically kick off in January with members largely doing the busywork of referring bills to committees and getting acquainted with each other and their committees. The Legislature is back now, but major changes have been made as top Democrats try to limit full meetings of the Legislature that will happen at the Augusta Civic Center.

Legislative staff have been sending bills to committees with virtual committee orientations set up for this week. The changes will bring public hearings and other meetings online while keeping most members of the public and lobbyists from attending in-person committee meetings.

Christine Kirby, a spokesperson for Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, said the letter was sent partially in response to a Portland Press Herald article detailing some House Republicans congregating in the State House without masks, violating legislative rules. The letter urged lawmakers to avoid attending meetings at the State House unless they would be unable to attend otherwise because of inadequate internet access.

Both Evangelos and Miramant stressed Monday they were not against masks and were frustrated by reports that some members were not following protocols, but they said lawmakers need to be in the same building at times to get their work done.

“If leadership has provided a path forward for us to [meet in person], then everybody should be helping to make that happen,” Miramant said.

Republicans have been most vocal about their desire to return to a more normal schedule, with many calling for work to begin just after they took office in a ceremonial December session. There was little work to be done as lawmakers still had weeks to submit bills for consideration this year, but there remains a divide between the parties.

Senate Minority Leader Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, said he has spoken with Jackson occasionally about State House proceedings, but was frustrated by what he called a “a lack of communication.” He said Senate Republicans were on board with wearing masks in the State House and any members that would not need to be “taken aside and told to wear masks.”

Kirby said leaders have been communicating regularly since swearing-in day and had met as recently as Friday to discuss State House matters.

The Legislature’s biggest job in 2021 will be approving a two-year budget. The budget committee has been meeting periodically during the pandemic using distancing and remote attendance. Rep. Jessica Fay, D-Raymond, said the experience has been largely manageable, although presenters have occasionally faced difficulties.

But Fay noted she was used to absorbing information remotely, something other lawmakers may have to get used to in Augusta, where conversations in the State House hallways shape policy and budget deals are worked out in back rooms.

“Every session presents different challenges, and this one will certainly be unique,” she said.