The Phippsburg Select Board is pictured here during a meeting in February, 2020. Kathleen O’Brien / The Times Record

PHIPPSBURG — Phippsburg Selectmen renewed their decision to not require, but encourage, residents to wear face masks while in municipal buildings, bucking Gov. Janet Mills’ executive order aimed at stemming the spread of COVID-19.

The board stood 2-1 on the decision last week. Chairman Mike Young voiced his continued support for requiring masks while in town buildings.

Selectman Chris Mixon said he believes masks work to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, but argued requiring people to wear one is “an overreach of government power and a violation of civil liberties.”

“None of the three of us believe that this is a hoax or something to be taken lightly,” said Mixon. “I encourage people to wear a face mask, I just don’t believe I have the authority to mandate it.”

On Nov. 5, Gov. Mills enacted a mask mandate requiring face masks while in public, regardless of a person’s ability to maintain physical distance from others.

The World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control have said wearing a face mask is one of the best ways to suppress the spread of COVID-19. The disease is spread when an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks and respiratory droplets land on another person’s eyes, nose, mouth or are inhaled.

Selectman Julia House echoed Mixon, basing her stance on those who cannot wear a face mask for medical reasons. She said people who can’t wear one are “looked down upon and told to put a mask on or asked ‘why don’t you put a mask on?’ and those questions cannot be asked.”

Both House and Mixon said they believe face masks work to prevent the disease from spreading.

Amber Jones, Phippsburg town administrator, estimated one-fourth of the people who come into the town office aren’t wearing a face mask. She said the town’s leniency with masks has made some town employees uncomfortable.

“It’s an issue for our employees and they’re wondering where their rights are in terms of serving people who aren’t wearing a mask because it makes them feel unsafe,” she said.

None of the selectmen work in the town offices.
Robert Long, Maine CDC spokesman, said respiratory problems and anxiety disorders are two of the more common medical exceptions for Mills’ mask mandate, but said face shields can be used as an alternative in some cases.
“It is important to note that the accommodation for someone with a medical exception does not allow people to enter public places while not wearing a mask,” said Long. “The Americans With Disabilities Act requires accommodation, which could be curbside or remote service, in a way that does not endanger the public.”
Phippsburg could enforce a stricter mask policy than Mills’ order in municipal buildings, but not a more lenient one, according to Susanne Pilgrim, director of the Maine Municipal Association Legal Services Department.

“Even if the town stated that its policy was to ‘recommend’ masks, the governor’s stricter mask requirement still applies statewide, including in Phippsburg,” she said.

Pilgrim rebuked Mixon’s argument that a mask mandate is unconstitutional.

“Regardless of anyone’s opinion, unless and until a court rules that the governor’s orders are in fact unconstitutional, they remain in force and enforceable by law enforcement,” Pilgrim said.

Pilgrim said the town’s failure to comply with the governor’s executive order “carries potential criminal sanctions.”

However, Pilgrim didn’t know what enforcement actions the state would take against the town if that happens.

According to a Nov. 23 statement from the Maine Attorney General and the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, an individual’s failure to comply with the executive order is a Class E crime, punishable with a fine of up to $1,000 and up to a six-month jail term.

The Attorney General and Mills’ office did not return requests for comment Monday regarding disciplinary action against municipalities.

In a written public comment, resident Leslie Belz pleaded with selectmen to require face masks in municipal buildings.

“The sooner we all comply, the sooner this pandemic will be behind us,” Belz wrote. “We all want to get back to normal, wearing a piece of fabric over your nose and mouth for a little while seems like a pretty easy way to get there.”

Belz pointed out that people in the community without health insurance “cannot afford to gamble with their health.” If the contracted COVID-19 and required medical treatment, the bills “would be staggering and potentially put their homes, family and lives in jeopardy.”

“Are you willing to be responsible for your friends/neighbors to lose everything because you objected to wearing a mask?!” she wrote. “It is up to you to set a good example and so far you are failing.”

Phippsburg, with a population of 2,419, has seen just seven COVID-19 cases since March, according to the Maine CDC. While local cases remain low, statewide cases have spiked over the last month despite Maine keeping a handle on the pandemic during the summer.

On Monday, state health officials reported 427 Mainers tested positive for COVID-19, a new single-day record. The seven-day daily average also increased to 291.1 on Monday, compared to 168.1 a week ago and 156 a month ago, the Portland Press Herald reported.

Since the pandemic reached Maine in March, 13,775 Mainers have tested positive for COVID-19. Of those, 10,146 have recovered but 227 have died.

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