PHIPPSBURG — For the third time, Phippsburg Selectmen decided to “strongly recommend” rather than require face masks in municipal buildings, despite calls from the public to enforce the governor’s mask mandate created to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19.

Chairperson Mike Young motioned Wednesday to abide by Gov. Janet Mills’ executive order enforcing mask-wearing, saying, “I would like to see the governor’s orders followed.”

“I’m a little frustrated with them, and I’m sure they’re a little frustrated with me,” Young said, referring to the other board members. “This is a disagreement between the three of us, but we’ll continue to treat one another fairly.”

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

Board members Julia House and Chris Mixon remained opposed to the executive order.

Both Mixon and House said they believe the pandemic isn’t “a hoax” and that masks help mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Mixon, however, said he believes requiring people to mask is “an overreach of government power and a violation of civil liberties.”

“This isn’t a question of masks for me,” said Mixon. “It’s a question of freedom. To use my rights to take rights away from people is against every fiber of my being.”

On Nov. 5, Gov. Mills enacted a mask mandate requiring people wear 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.

On Wednesday, eight Phippsburg residents asked the select board to require masks in municipal buildings to protect both town employees and the public. No one spoke against wearing a mask.

“We’re in the worst health crisis in 100 years,” said Bob Reyes, a Phippsburg resident. “We’re all used to following laws that reinforce the common good. We all refuse to drive while intoxicated, we all wear our seatbelts when driving. Mask-wearing is a small and reasonable thing we can do given the enormity of what we’re facing.”

Dan Dowd, another resident, said wearing a mask isn’t “a huge sacrifice to make,” especially when 21.2% of the town’s population is over the age of 65, according to the US Census, putting them at an increased risk of developing complications from COVID-19.

“We don’t want to be like South Dakota and other rural places in this country that didn’t think they had a problem because the problem is rising all around us and even in Phippsburg,” added resident Phoebe Adams.

House said she’s against requiring people to wear a mask because some people can’t wear one for medical reasons.

“I think the shaming needs to end,” said House. “People are shaming people who cannot wear a mask. Those people are getting very depressed because they can’t go anywhere because if they do go somewhere, people are shaming them for not not wearing a mask.”

House said Plexiglass shields have been installed in the town office.

“The employees, we’ve left it to them to wear a mask, and we’ve got sanitizer and cleaning products and we’ve encouraged online and mail transactions,” House added.

Amber Jones, Phippsburg town administrator, told the board some town employees feel unsafe serving people who don’t wear a mask and don’t feel as though they have the board’s support to deny service unless someone wears a mask.

Lisa Wallace, Phippsburg town clerk, said she understands House’s concern about people who can’t wear masks for a medical reason, but said most people can, and will, wear a mask when required.

“It’s a very small list of people who can’t wear a mask and I think most people just don’t want to be bothered with them,” said Wallace. “I don’t go anywhere without wearing a mask and I hate to wear it so I get it, but I also understand that people are getting COVID-19.”

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.”

According to Susanne Pilgrim, director of the Maine Municipal Association Legal Services Department, Phippsburg could enforce a stricter mask policy than Mills’ order in municipal buildings, but not a more lenient one.

“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. “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.”

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 6-month jail term.

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 continue to skyrocket.

State health officials reported Thursday another 404 Mainers tested positive for COVID-19, making it the third day over 400 people have tested positive in a single day since March. The seven-day daily average of new cases stood at 330.1 on Thursday, compared to 185.9 a week ago and 162.6 a month ago.

Statewide, 14,861 Mainers have tested positive for COVID-19 since March. Of those, 10,394 people have recovered but 246 have died.

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