The 130th Maine Legislature will be sworn in Wednesday at the Augusta Civic Center in a historic ceremony shaped by social distancing precautions necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which will prevent one lawmaker from attending.

The ceremony was moved from the State House to the arena to reduce the risk of spreading the coronavirus.

Sen.-elect Rick Bennett, R-Oxford, will be absent this week after testing positive for COVID-19 following the Thanksgiving Day weekend.

Bennett announced the positive test on his Facebook page Sunday, saying he would need to quarantine until at least Dec. 12.

“I am feeling okay thus far – sore throat, achy, tired. Temp and oxygen are normal,” Bennett posted, fetching well wishes from more than 280 people.

The Augusta Civic Center, seen in April, will host the swearing-in of the 130th Maine Legislature. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal file Buy this Photo

At least one Republican staff member who had contact with Bennett last week was quarantining and working from home out of an “abundance of caution,” but was not experiencing symptoms, said Tom Desjardin, a spokesman for Senate Republicans.

Desjardin and others working for the party caucuses said they knew of no other lawmakers testing positive ahead of Wednesday’s unusual proceedings.

Gov. Janet Mills will administer the oath of office to House and Senate members in separate ceremonies at different locations inside the 49,000-square foot civic center. The venue was chosen to allow lawmakers and others enough space to stay 6 feet apart during the proceedings.

Aside from the governor’s inauguration, it is unusual for the Legislature to meet on official business outside the State House complex. Researchers at the Legislative Law Library said they did not know when this last happened, but it may have been when the State House was renovated from 1909 to 1911.

Wednesday’s events will be livestreamed on the Legislature’s website, but the public, friends and family of lawmakers – who typically attend the ceremonies – will not be allowed in the building Wednesday. Access will be limited to the press, legislative staff and civic center support staff and contractors.

Lawmakers and others attending Wednesday are not required to get tested beforehand, said Mary Erin Casale, spokeswoman for outgoing House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport. But all those entering the building will be asked screening questions and must stagger their arrival times, Casale said.

Everyone attending will be required to wear a mask and have their temperature taken, Casale said.

“Masks must cover your nose and mouth, fit snugly against the sides of your face, and not have exhalation valves,” a legislative staff memo states. “Masks made of cloth should have multiple layers of cloth. All individuals must wear masks in all spaces, including hallways and bathrooms.”

After being sworn in, lawmakers will elect a secretary of state, attorney general and state treasurer to two-year terms and a state auditor for a four-year term. The House will also elect a new speaker and the Senate a president.

Democrats hold majorities in both chambers and should control those votes, but Republicans will also offer candidates, likely to be selected during party caucus meetings Tuesday.

Lawmakers will cast votes using computer tablets – in the State House, an electronic system allows lawmakers to vote by pushing a “yes” or “no” button on their desks. The only paper distributed will be the House and Senate calendars, according to the legislative staff memo.

Temporary offices for caucus leaders and presiding officers have also been set up in the arena.

Some critics of the governor’s pandemic restrictions have made social media posts calling for a demonstration at the civic center to protest the lack of public access to the ceremonies, but it’s unclear how many might show up.

Police and security will be onsite and those entering the civic center will have to pass through a security checkpoint with a metal detector. Weapons, alcohol and other items deemed a safety threat will prohibited.


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