Inside Augusta

Legislative Council votes to reinstate face mask policy at State House, file brief in lobster lawsuit

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Maine’s Legislative Council voted to reinstate its COVID-19 Prevention Policy, which requires face masks to be worn in the State House, during its September 23 meeting.

The policy is identical to the one that was in place during the legislature’s first session, with the exception of a requirement that committee meetings be held remotely. 

The motion to reinstate the policy passed by a vote of 7-3. Sen. Jeff Timberlake (R-Androscoggin), Rep. Joel Stetkis (R-Canaan), and Rep. Katleen Dillinghm (R-Oxford) opposed reinstating the policy.

Stetkis questioned who the policy was trying to protect. He noted there is a difference between today and when the mask policy was first in place, including the availability of vaccines for those who want them, the number of people who are covered by vaccine mandates, and those who have had it and are immune.

House Speaker Ryan Fecteau, who chairs the council, stated he thought legislators need to protect people in their own communities who can still contract COVID-19. He also noted people who are vaccinated can still carry COVID-19. 

Dillingham also added that she wants people to know that those who oppose reinstating the mandate don’t do so because they don’t care about protecting people in the community, but because they want people to be able to choose for themselves to wear a mask rather than have the government mandate it. 

Sen. Matthew Pouliot (R-Kennebec), who added that he had COVID-19 in May, said he agreed with Dillingham but supported the measure to reinstate the mask requirement for one day.

The legislature will convene on September 29 to consider the redistricting proposals submitted by the Apportionment Commission. 

Pouliot also said he believes the council needs to have a more substantive discussion about what thresholds will trigger implementation of the policy in the future.

The council discussed removing face shields from the list of face coverings approved under the COVID-19 prevention policy. Fecteau led the argument for removing them from the policy, but Dillingham noted that some members of the Republican caucus wear a face shield because they have medical reasons that prohibit them from wearing a mask.

The council was unable to figure out how to accommodate individuals with medical exemptions to mask wearing and ultimately did not vote to remove face shields from the policy.

Led by Sen. Troy Jackson (D-Aroostook), the council also discussed the lobster fishery closure rules recently released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Jackson stated that, in his opinion, the NOAA rules were unfair and somewhat if not completely biased. He added he doesn’t believe the new rules will do anything to help right whales but will do a lot to hurt the lobster industry, and thus the state. 

He added that he talked to representatives from the New England branch of NOAA in August, who told him the agency doesn’t fly over the Gulf of Maine to observe whales anymore because they don’t feel like the whales are in the gulf anymore.

Jackson also announced that there will be a federal lawsuit filed in Bangor that will seek a stay against the NOAA rules and try to have them reversed. He asked that the council sign onto the lawsuit as plaintiffs and proposed the council consider making a financial contribution to the lawsuit in future.

Other members of the council were supportive of Jackson’s desire to add the weight of the legislature to the legal case being brought against NOAA, but discussion focused around whether doing so was within the legislature’s authority.

Suzanne Gresser, the legislature’s nonpartisan executive director, said she believed the legislative council would need explicit direction from the legislature in the form of a joint resolution or bill in order to initiate anything.

She also said this would not be necessary if the council were to file an amicus brief. 

Fecteau made a motion to initiate an amicus brief, which passed unanimously. The council will pursue having the Attorney General’s office draft the brief.

About Katherine Revello

Katherine Revello is a reporter for The Maine Wire. She has degrees in journalism and political science from the University of Maine. Her writing has appeared in Reason, The Washington Examiner, and various other publications. Got news tips? Contact Katherine at krevello@mainepolicy.org.

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