Several members of Local S6, the largest union at Bath Iron Works, forego wearing a face mask as they picket in front of the shipyard’s South Gate in Bath. Kathleen O’Brien / The Times Record

BATH — Face masks were few and far between on the first day of the picketing at Bath Iron Works and appeared to be nonexistent by day three as members of the shipyard’s largest union demand changes to their next contract.

Local S6 of the Machinists Union, which represents 4,300 of the company’s 6,700 employees, launched its first strike since 2000 after rejecting a three-year contract proposal over the weekend.

Tim Suitter, Local S6 spokesman, said union officials are “trying to spread people out amongst facilities and limit the number of people in one area, recommending social distancing and face masks.”

He said when union members arrive, they must check in at the union hall, where they’re assigned to picket at one of the shipyard’s gates. Suitter said this limits the number of people in one area, adhering to required coronavirus group size limitations. Face masks are available in the union hall to those who want one.

“As you can imagine, the first initial response to strike is harder to control with the number of people upset over the lack of a fair contract at BIW,” said Suitter.

While spread down lower Washington Street in Bath, picketers gave varied reasons for deciding against wearing masks.

Alvan Hanks, a BIW employee of 32 years, said he wasn’t wearing a mask because he feels safe standing outside with his fellow co-workers, who are all seemingly healthy.

“I’ll wear one when I need to, like if I’m in close quarters or go to the grocery store,” said Hanks.

Glenn Poulin decided against wearing a mask because “I think the government has been blowing it out of proportion.”

Jeff Michaud said he wore one while working for several weeks, but slowly stopped because it made it difficult to breathe.

“I’m asthmatic. … I accept that if I get sick it could be a death sentence,” said Michaud. “When I’m outside I don’t wear one. I’m careful I don’t touch my face and I wash my hands if I’ve touched other surfaces.”

Robert Long, Maine Center for Disease Control spokesman, said the best defenses against coronavirus, regardless of location, are physical distancing, wearing a face mask in public and frequent handwashing.

The CDC recommends masks in public because the virus is believed to spread through respiratory droplets from an infected person.

“Wearing a face covering protects the people with whom the wearer comes in contact, so union members could show their concern and support for fellow union members by using face coverings in group settings and striving to stay 6 feet apart,” said Long.

Long said it’s difficult to say what the repercussions could be if picketers continue to forego wearing face masks because research on the how the virus spreads is ongoing. “Early results indicate that the virus can be aggressive, which is why physical distancing, face covering, and hygiene guidelines are in place in Maine, other states, and other nations,” Long said.

Three workers at BIW have tested positive for coronavirus since the pandemic reached Maine. The first case at the shipyard was in late March. Another positive case followed in early April, and the most recent case was announced earlier this month. All workers who tested positive have recovered and returned to work, according to a statement from the company.

In March and April when the number of cases in Maine steadily rose, union officials and Maine lawmakers alike called on the company to close to prevent the virus from spreading within the shipyard, which employs 6,700 employees from every county in the state.

Suitter did not return requests for comment on how many union members wear face masks while working.

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