It was bound to happen. The month-long political calm that followed Gov. Janet Mills’s assumption of emergency powers wasn’t going to last forever.

Still, the sight of demonstrators milling about the State House on Monday was disturbing — and not only because few were observing appropriate physical distancing.

It was a chaotic, though peaceful, example of the many shades of opinion that will always move members of a democratic society. We often disagree, and while the disagreements can be tedious, they are necessary.

Amid the pandemic, we retain full free speech rights and can say whatever we want, provided it’s not an incitement  — the only restriction the U.S. Supreme Court has consistently allowed.

What we don’t have is unfettered use of another part of the First Amendment, the “right of the people peaceably to assemble.” That’s what the gubernatorial orders, in all 50 states, are about.

Monday’s spectacle featured an in-person view of a candidate in the most heated primary election race — one of three Republicans seeking to oppose first-term Democrat Jared Golden, who ousted Bruce Poliquin from his 2nd District congressional seat in 2018.

Eric Brakey, the GOP nominee against Sen. Angus King in 2018, was on hand, with his customary whirlwind style that perplexed his fellow state senators during two terms at the State House. Without amplification, Brakey’s remarks were inaudible to reporters, but it’s safe to say he was expressing his libertarian views.

Government shouldn’t restrict free movement and assembly unnecessarily: That was the theme of the gathering, and of a related letter from all but three of Republicans serving in the minority at the Legislature.

Adrienne Bennett, another 2nd District candidate, decided to observe physical distancing by not attending, but did issue broadsides online, including a selfie with a protest sign. The contradiction between her criticism of Mills’s order and her absence did not escape notice.

Bennett said it was because “I am not confident that Janet Mills would handle the protests appropriately” — one head-scratcher, followed by another: “I do not trust the media to cover the event appropriately.”

For more than six years, Bennett was spokeswoman for former Gov. Paul LePage, where she had plenty of opportunity to influence the news, and did so with unswerving loyalty, even when the boss conducted some rather absurd maneuvers himself. She must have been miffed that LePage endorsed another candidate.

The ex-governor himself, now a Florida resident, sounded reasonable, by contrast. On radio, he suggested a phased reopening, north to south, and offered his services to Mills.

Of course, if he were really interested in helping, he would have made a private call, but that isn’t the LePage way, then or now.

The candidate who LePage did endorse, former state Rep. Dale Crafts, was also absent, but said he would have attended, except his van was in the shop. Crafts, who uses a wheelchair, seemed to have a better reason than Bennett.

Based on previous performance, Brakey is probably the primary favorite, although this year, who can tell? Mills rescheduled the primary — without sufficient consultation, according to Republicans — for July 14 — known, in other parts of the world, as Bastille Day, France’s equivalent to our Fourth of July.

The serious issue posed by the State House demonstration goes beyond the stated reasons behind this unwise, if not illegal, assembly. Those attending insisted they have the right to risk contracting coronavirus, as consenting adults.

Yet the virus spreads by subtle and still not well understood means, with many carriers asymptomatic — meaning they show no signs of illness, and may never. By continuing to gather, they put not only themselves at risk, but countless others with whom they will later come into contact.

And that is our dilemma, in a nutshell. Reopening of businesses will begin soon — Mills was mulling her order as this was written — and will follow the principle of limiting contacts, which is indeed more possible in rural than urban areas.

Maine will likely be ahead of southern New England states, because it’s farther from the epicenter of U.S. infections, New York, where the death toll has been fearful — 53 per 100,000. By contrast, Maine’s death rate is only 2.7 — though the toll has already exceeded the average annual total of homicides.

Reopening will be hard to stop once it starts, yet the risk of new outbreaks is real, even though it cannot yet be quantified.

Now that Republicans have made their point, perhaps they could make another: No more inappropriate gatherings. Use the right of free speech, not assembly.

The lives of fellow citizens may well depend on it.

Douglas Rooks, a Maine editor, reporter, opinion writer and author for 35 years, has published books about George Mitchell, and the Maine Democratic Party. He welcomes comment at [email protected] 


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