Maine legislator’s 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.
Governor 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. However, Democratic legislative leaders kept a State House mandate in effect ahead of their return to the Capitol for the first time in over a year.
Seven legislators walked into the building unmasked last week, House Speaker Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, chose 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.
Republicans have gotten national attention for the protest over the past week.
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 remain unvaccinated. The CDC guidance was correct given the effectiveness of the vaccines in blocking transmission. But implementing challenges businesses and governments finding it hard to know who is vaccinated.
Speaker of the House Ryan Fecteau and Senate President Troy Jackson, have not indicated what will happen if legislators do not follow the mandate. Speaker of the House Fecteau has indicated that the seven conservative members who lost committee assignments to Democrats will not get them back until they follow mask rules.
Leaders could bar unmasked legislators 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 legislators, affecting important votes requiring supermajorities, including supplemental budget proposals.