Nine months into the coronavirus pandemic, bad news starts sounding routine. But we can’t let that happen.

The Phippsburg Select Board, shown during a meeting in February, recently voted to make mask wearing recommended but not required in the town offices. Kathleen O’Brien / The Times Record

So far, more than 15 million Americans have been infected, and we are approaching 300,000 deaths. Although there has been promising news about one or more vaccines, widespread immunity is months away at best.

When things this dark, it’s frustrating to see people who still believe the public safety rules shouldn’t apply to them. And when those people are in positions of authority, it’s maddening.

The latest example comes from the town of Phippsburg, where two members of the three-member Board of Selectmen voted to make mask wearing recommended but not required in the town offices.

To their credit, board members Chris Mixon and Julia House don’t claim that COVID is a hoax, or that the virus is nothing more than a new form of the flu. But they make a sharp turn in the wrong direction when they block mandatory mask wearing on town property, which Mixon claims is “an overreach of government power and a violation of civil liberties.”

They are wrong on both counts.

Public health restrictions have a long history in this country, and there is a line of court cases going back to the 1800s that uphold the government’s responsibility to protect the public.

From quarantines to mandatory vaccination laws, the Supreme Court has consistently found that no one’s rights allow them to endanger others’ health. A rule that tells people to cover their faces when there is a respiratory virus killing more than 2,000 people a day is not an example of overreach by government – it’s government’s basic duty.

This shouldn’t be a hard one for the selectmen.

Mask wearing saves lives. That’s why every reputable public health authority recommends their use. Maine Gov. Janet Mills issued a statewide mask mandate in early November, and it is in effect in every public space where people come into contact with each other.

As long as Phippsburg is still in Maine, that order should make it fairly obvious where the town’s responsibility lies.

But they don’t need to go as far as Augusta for guidance. The selectmen should consider their own employees who have to go to work in a place where they may be exposed to a virus that could kill them or a member of their household.

Town offices enforce the ban on cigarette smoking to protect employees from secondhand smoke. They ought to show the same concern for their employees during a public health emergency.

For a long time, Maine escaped the worst of the pandemic through a mixture of prudent public health measures and good luck. But our luck may be running out.

As recently as Nov. 1, Maine’s seven-day average for positive COVID tests was 57 new cases a day. Hospitals had plenty of room in their critical care units, and public health agencies were able to trace contacts of people who had tested positive and let them know they had been exposed.

By Dec. 1, the seven-day average climbed to 204 cases per day. A week later, it was 320. COVID hospitalizations are surging across Maine, and contact tracing has been scaled back because the volume of new cases has outpaced available resources.

Regulations like the mask mandate and social distancing rules are all we’ve got to keep the pandemic under control until the vaccine has been administered.

We have to act as if the virus is everywhere, because it is.


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