The BDN Editorial Board operates independently from the newsroom, and does not set policies or contribute to reporting or editing articles elsewhere in the newspaper or on bangordailynews.com.
We said it last week, and we’ll say it again: The Maine Legislature has more important things to do than get bogged down in a fight over mask rules.
The easiest way to avoid that fight is for members to follow the State House mask mandate. Following the rules, even the ones they don’t agree with, shouldn’t be too onerous for the people who make our laws. Legislative work could grind to a halt pretty quickly if elected officials got to decide, whenever they wanted, which chamber requirements they have to follow and which ones they can discard as mere inconveniences.
We hope that all lawmakers who disagree with the continued mask requirement in the State House will follow Senate Republican leader Jeff Timberlake. Timberlake told the Bangor Daily News that he opposes the mask policy, but still intends to wear a mask this week.
It’s not just Republicans who aren’t thrilled with the mask mandate. Rep. Jeff Evangelos, a progressive independent, also told the BDN that he dislikes the requirement but will follow it.
“We need to go get our work done,” Evangelos said. “I would prefer to not wear a mask, but when I walk into a restaurant that requires one, I don’t start a revolution over it.”
This is the perspective that needs to win out as lawmakers return to the State House this week. The Legislature has some big budgetary decisions to make, and compared to those issues, flouting the duly enacted mask policy looks less like principled protest and more like petulance.
Last week, seven conservative lawmakers entered the State House without masks despite being told by a Capitol Police officer that masks were required by leadership. The Legislative Council voted along party lines the previous week to keep requiring masks, with majority Democrats in favor and the Republican minority opposed.
After the incident last Monday, Democratic Speaker of the House Ryan Fecteau removed the seven lawmakers from their committee assignments and replaced them with Democrats, which was unnecessarily partisan. In a press release, the group of seven said that they were adhering to Gov. Janet Mills’ removal of the state’s indoor mask mandate, which followed recent guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But, setting aside for a moment the fact that these members weren’t following legislative policy, there was an important part left out of the equation.
The CDC guidance doesn’t say that “nobody wears masks anymore.” It recommends that fully vaccinated people don’t need to wear masks in most settings. And with only 32 of 186 Maine lawmakers responding to a weeklong BDN survey asking if they’re vaccinated, there is still a big unknown here. All 32 who responded to the survey — 24 Democrats, five Republicans and three others — said they are vaccinated. Of the seven who were punished for disregarding the mask policy last week, only one, Libertarian Rep. John Andrews, confirmed with the BDN that he is vaccinated.
Without answers from the other six, or from most of the Legislature, we don’t know who is really vaccinated and following CDC guidance.
What we do know is that we’ve heard a lot, often from legislative Republicans, about the need for the Maine Legislature to reassert itself as a coequal branch of government after a year of emergency action from Mills. Now, it seems that some of those Republicans bristle at the idea of the legislative branch deciding, through its own procedures, how to address mask policy. Unless we’re missing something, it appears they would rather the Legislature tie itself to an order from the governor than set its own policies.
To be clear, while Mills removed the statewide mask mandate, her administration is continuing to require state employees who are in shared indoor work spaces to wear masks at least through early July. Neither U.S. CDC nor state guidance prevents businesses or other organizations from adopting their own mask requirements.
If state employees can follow the rules and continue to wear masks in specific settings, state lawmakers can do the same. And more importantly, if lawmakers are going to expect the Maine people to follow the laws they pass, the Maine people should be able to expect that their lawmakers will follow State House policies and help ensure a respectful and (hopefully) productive legislative environment.