A sign on the door to a Portland building instructs visitors to wear a mask on Tuesday Dec. 22, 2020. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

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Recently, Androscoggin County Sheriff Eric Samson told his county commissioners that he and his staff would not be part of future in-person commissioners’ meetings unless members of the public participate via Zoom. He delivered this message amid an ongoing pandemic and after attending a Feb. 3 meeting where he was asked to enforce social distancing among a mostly maskless crowd.

“I wanted to inform you that myself and members of the Sheriff’s Office will not participate in in-person commissioners’ meetings moving forward unless they are closed to the public and offered to the public via Zoom,” Samson wrote, as reported by the Lewiston Sun Journal. “I would encourage the use of Zoom for meeting purposes and if you do not wish to have staff present I would also be willing to participate via Zoom.”

At that Feb. 3 meeting, the commissioners were considering — and eventually postponed to this week — a resolution that would defy the statewide mask mandate implemented by Gov. Janet Mills using her lawful authority under Title 37-B in state statute. As Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey noted in a Feb. 5 letter to the commissioners, they are “legally obligated to require that all persons attending public meetings, including the commissioners themselves, wear face coverings.”

Following that letter, Commission Chairwoman Sally Christner announced that only county commissioners and employees would be allowed to attend meetings in person, and that an option for the public to watch via Zoom was in the works. All commissioners are now scheduled to meet virtually as well, according to the Sun Journal.

From a legal perspective, the proposed anti-mask resolution is a bad idea. The same is true from a public health and public safety perspective.

The public health benefits of wearing a mask to slow the spread of COVID-19 are well established. But wearing a mask doesn’t just help protect the general public, it also helps protect the public servants who enforce our laws every day.

Law enforcement officers have a dangerous job. Disturbing events like the Feb. 2 shooting in Florida that killed two FBI agents and wounded three others offer painful reminders of that fact. The number of officers feloniously killed in the line of duty continues to be alarming and unacceptable.

2020 was a particularly dangerous time to be a police officer, especially because of the ongoing pandemic. The toll this past year has had on individual officers must not be overlooked, even as the much-needed conversation about systemic policing reform continues.

Different groups like the Officer Down Memorial Page and National Law Enforcement Memorial Fund (NLEOMF) don’t seem to record line-of-duty deaths in exactly the same way. But regardless of the organization or the way they track these deaths, the numbers are shocking. A ccording to the NLEOMF, there were 264 federal, state, military, tribal and local law enforcement officers who died in the line-of-duty in 2020. That’s an increase of 96 percent compared to the 135 officers killed in 2019.

Of those 264 officer deaths, 145 were confirmed COVID-19 cases.

“In 2020, officer fatalities ranged from automobile crashes to heart attacks and from gunshots to being beaten to death,” the NLEOMF report said. “Of these tragic deaths, Covid-19 related fatalities were the single highest cause of officer line-of-duty deaths in 2020.”

The Fraternal Order of Police says that more than 400 officers have died in the line of duty due to COVID-19 since the pandemic began last year. That total, which the organization stresses is compiled from news reports and includes COVID deaths that have not all been verified, thankfully does not include a single COVID death among Maine law enforcement. The general public has a role to play in trying to help keep it that way.

“Staff and I have worked very hard to limit risks of exposure, and due to room capacity and attendance with last night’s meeting along with future public interests that may follow, I would prefer to limit our risks of exposure,” Samson wrote in his letter to the county commissioners. “This is not a political stance or a criticism in any regard, I just need to look out for staff health and safety. You may have noticed that I have not regularly attended as I have in the past for that same reason, unless I had an agenda item or through the budget process.”

Samson was smart to remove his department from that situation. And if members of the public want to help protect the people sworn to protect them, there’s a small but important step they can take: wear a mask. It’s an opportunity for people to demonstrate personal responsibility during a pandemic and to show their support for law enforcement at the same time.

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The BDN Editorial Board

The Bangor Daily News editorial board members are Publisher Richard J. Warren, Editorial Page Editor Susan Young, Assistant Editorial Page Editor Matt Junker and BDN President Todd Benoit. Young has worked...