State representatives take part a special session of the Legislature at the State House, Wednesday, Sept. 29, 2021, in Augusta, Maine. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty) Credit: Robert F. Bukaty/AP

AUGUSTA, Maine — Leaders of the Maine Legislature on Friday released an initial schedule for a January return to the State House, again limiting in-person floor sessions, leaving lawmakers under a mask mandate and retaining virtual committee hearings.

The two top legislative Democrats, Senate President Troy Jackson of Allagash and House Speaker Ryan Fecteau of Biddeford, cited Maine’s recent COVID-19 surge as the reason for limiting in-person work during the 2022 session. The state has seen record cases and hospitalizations in recent weeks that show few signs of letting up through the holidays.

The Legislature abruptly adjourned in March 2020 just as Maine was reporting its first coronavirus cases. Lawmakers worked virtually at the beginning of 2021, using the Augusta Civic Center in March and May spurts to dash through work before returning to the State House in June as Gov. Janet Mills was winding down a pandemic state of emergency.

“We simply can’t afford to put our families and communities at risk or further stress our hospitals, health care providers and frontline workers,” Jackson said in a statement.

Lawmakers will use the State House in 2022, but Jackson and Fecteau have only set aside two days — Jan. 5 and 26 — for floor sessions so far. Face coverings must be worn in most public spaces within the building. Committees will continue to meet and take testimony on bills virtually. The schedule will be reviewed and updated periodically. The session is set to end in April.

Next year’s session promises to be contentious, with the Democratic governor facing former Republican Gov. Paul LePage in a November election in which every legislative seat will also be on the ballot. Lawmakers must also hammer out a deal around Maine’s $800 million budget surplus, with Mills releasing a short-term budget proposal in the next few weeks.

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after time at the Kennebec Journal. He lives in Augusta, graduated from the University of Maine in 2012 and has a master's degree from the University...