The Phippsburg Board of Selectmen voted Wednesday to follow Gov. Janet Mills’ mandate requiring people to wear a face mask in municipal buildings. Kathleen O’Brien / The Times Record

PHIPPSBURG — After weeks of bucking Janet Mills’ mask mandate, Phippsburg Selectmen on Wednesday voted unanimously to comply with the governor’s executive order requiring people to wear face masks in all public buildings. The board’s decision was influenced by warnings from Maine’s Attorney General Frey and Jessica Maher, Phippsburg’s town attorney.

The board rescinded its previous policy, which “strongly encouraged” people to wear face masks in municipal buildings but did not require them.

In his Dec. 14 letter to the board, Attorney General Aaron Frey wrote Mills’ executive order makes the board “legally obligated to require the use of face coverings in all municipal buildings” that are accessible to the public, including “parking lots, walkways, lobbies, waiting areas, elevators, service desks, and related hallways.”

“Any local policy that conflicts with the Governor’s Executive Order would be pre-empted by the Governor’s Order,” Maher wrote. “The Town could have a stricter policy that the Governor’s policy, but not more lenient. So regardless of what the Town’s stated policy is, the Governor’s stricter requirement would still apply statewide.”

Selectman Chris Mixon, who previously opposed mask requirements, said he still “has a problem with the constitutionality” of requiring people to wear a face mask. However, Mixon proposed “deleting” the town’s policy and acknowledging Mills’ mandate because “we don’t have much choice in the matter.”

“I think at this point we just need to post the governor’s mandate and move on,” said Selectman Julia House, who previously opposed the mandate.

Chairman Mike Young has backed requiring masks while in town buildings throughout the debate.

Under Mills’ executive order, a person refusing to wear a mask in such a space must be denied entry, and if they remove their mask once inside they must be removed and charged with criminal trespassing.

Criminal trespassing is a Class E crime punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 and up to six months in jail.

Mixon said earlier this month 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.”

“I have heard many arguments that the mask mandate is unconstitutional, but until a court makes that ruling the Order is considered constitutional,” Maher responded. “By not following and enforcing the mask requirement the town is opening itself up to potential liability.”

House has said her stance is based on people who can’t wear a mask for medical reasons because they’re “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.”

The governor’s order permits reasonable accommodations for those with disabilities, according to Frey.

“The Order makes it clear, though, that ‘due to the direct threat to public health and safety, no such accommodation may make it permissible for any person to enter or remain in any indoor public setting without a face covering,’” Frey wrote.

Phippsburg Town Administrator Amber Jones said the town will accommodate residents who cannot wear a face mask by conducting business remotely.

Robert Long, Maine CDC spokesman, has previously stated that 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.”

While Phippsburg, a town of 2,419, has only seen seven COVID-19 cases, according to the most recent data from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, statewide cases have continued to swell in recent weeks.

Seven-day statewide averages display this trend. Maine’s seven-day average of new cases is up to 409.3, compared with 329.7 a week ago and 177.3 a month ago, the Portland Press Herald reported.

State health officials reported 590 people tested positive for COVID-19 on Wednesday, a new single-day record, surpassing a record of 550 set the previous day.

The Maine CDC reported 17,901 Mainers have tested positive for COVID-19 as of Thursday. Of those, 276 have died.

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