AUGUSTA, Maine — Both Maine lawmakers’ reluctance to respond to a survey on vaccinations and a standoff over a mask mandate threatening to upend State House business have underscored ongoing political tension around COVID-19 policies.
Gov. Janet Mills’ decision to lift Maine’s mask mandate on May 24 followed guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention saying fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear masks in most indoor spaces. But Democratic legislative leaders kept a State House mandate in effect ahead of a Wednesday return to the Capitol for the first time in over a year.
Seven conservative lawmakers walked into the building unmasked last week, leading House Speaker Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, to remove them from their committees and replace them with Democrats. It compounds increasing friction between the parties and illustrates the lingering politicization of the pandemic and the limits of inconsistent and optional mandates.
“Today’s debate about vaccine verification stands on the shoulders of the debate about mask wearing, which stands on the shoulders of the debate about stay-at-home protocols,” said Brian Castrucci, CEO of the de Beaumont Foundation, a public health nonprofit. “It’s hard to disentangle.”
Republicans have gotten national attention for the protest over the past week. Rep. Laurel Libby of Auburn, who led it, appeared on Fox News. They and their allies have argued Democrats are “no longer following the science,” but those people have generally breezed by the fact that mask guidelines from the U.S. government mirrored by Mills apply only to vaccinated people.
Fecteau cited that unknown last week as a main reason why he was not interested in surveying members on vaccine status, but it is also not clear if that information how many would have volunteered it. The Bangor Daily News did a weeklong survey asking Maine’s 186 lawmakers if they were vaccinated. Only 17 percent — or 32 of them — responded. Others who did not respond to the survey have said they were vaccinated on social media or in other ways.
All of them — 24 Democrats, five Republicans and three others — confirmed they were vaccinated. Democrats agreed with the mask mandate; the Republicans opposed it. Libertarian Rep. John Andrews of Paris was the only lawmaker who joined the mask-rules protest to confirm he has been vaccinated.
While more than 70 percent of Maine adults have received at least one dose, epidemiologists still expect the virus to circulate here into the summer as more than 500,000 people — mostly young children — remain unvaccinated. The CDC guidance was correct given the effectiveness of the vaccines in blocking transmission, Castrucci said. But implementing challenges businesses and governments finding it hard to know who is vaccinated.
In a national survey conducted by the Republican-affiliated polling firm Echelon Insights in mid-May, 27 percent of people who were not vaccinated and had no plans to get the vaccine said they rarely or never wore face coverings in indoor public spaces. By contrast, only 6 percent of fully vaccinated individuals did not use masks. Both vaccination status and mask-wearing habits were both strongly correlated with partisan identity, the survey found, with Democrats more likely than Republicans to get shots and wear masks.
Fecteau and Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, have been vague about what exactly will happen if lawmakers do not follow the mandate on Wednesday. Fecteau said during a Thursday meeting that the seven conservative members who lost committee seats to Democrats will not get them back until they follow mask rules.
Leaders could bar unmasked lawmakers from the chamber, but more serious punishments like censure or expulsion require two-thirds majorities in either chamber. Minority Republicans could lose limited clout if they are down lawmakers, because their greatest power lies in affecting votes requiring supermajorities, including spending proposals to be decided soon.
That risk seemed top of mind for Senate Minority Leader Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, who said he intends to wear a mask this week even though he opposes the policy. He hopes his members choose to do the same, but he said all he can do is inform them of the potential consequences. He compared it to speeding on the Maine Turnpike and getting pulled over.
“I don’t want my members sitting on the outside looking in,” he said.
Timberlake was not surprised Republicans were not forthcoming about their vaccination status, saying they probably view it as private. He did not respond to the BDN’s survey but has said he is vaccinated. But he also argued status should not matter, distinguishing a citizen legislature from businesses that can require employees to disclose vaccination status and be masked.
Fecteau said Thursday he feels a responsibility to protect those who cannot get vaccinated or have young children at home who are not eligible. He said staffers had come to him with concerns about people being unmasked in the building far before Mills lifted the mandate.
Vaccinated lawmakers said they shared their status because they thought it might encourage people to get the shot. But they varied along party lines on whether the mandate mattered.
Among them was Rep. Amy Arata, R-New Gloucester, who was skeptical Democrats were concerned about unvaccinated Republicans’ safety, citing their March move to pass an initial two-year budget without the minority party’s approval. She said requiring a mask when the governor is not sets a bad signal to those on the fence about getting a shot.
“It worries me when I see people who have been vaccinated out in public wearing a mask because the vaccines work very well,” she said.
Others said the issue was trivial given a scheduled June adjournment. First-term Rep. Tavis Hasenfus, D-Readfield, called it “way overblown.” Rep. Jeff Evangelos, I-Friendship, a progressive who butted heads with Democrats on returning to the State House early this year, said he dislikes the mandate but will follow it.
“We need to go get our work done,” he 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.”