Grace Fectueau waits on customers at Huiskamer Coffee House in downtown Augusta in this March 29, 2019, file photo. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal file

AUGUSTA — The owners of a downtown coffee shop blame the state’s latest coronavirus pandemic restrictions for their closure.

The owners of Huiskamer Coffee House, Grace and Justin Fecteau, said the new rules make it impossible for people unable to wear a mask due to disabilities to work or shop in indoor public areas.

Grace, who served in the Army and was deployed in the war in Iraq for 15 months, has a disability connected to her service. She had been granted an accommodation by the state allowing her to work at the coffee shop without wearing a mask — as long as she remained behind a non-porous Plexiglas shield installed on their counter which they said surrounds what was her workspace.

But now, the Fecteaus say that accommodation, which had been negotiated with state officials and approved by the Maine Center for Disease Control, has been eliminated by Gov. Janet Mills’s most recent executive orders. Among the changes are the requirement that everyone, even people with disabilities, wear a face covering while in indoor public spaces.

When they learned that accommodation would no longer be allowed just before Christmas, they decided they could not longer run their business.

“We are extremely disappointed and frustrated with this decision to remove some human beings from the public,” Justin Fecteau said in an email in response to questions about the closure of the small business. “Not allowing accommodations is contrary to the science and (the state’s) previous statements.”

The Fecteaus also noted the new executive orders also mean people with disabilities who are unable to wear masks are no longer allowed to enter indoor public areas, such as to shop or — in their case — work.

State officials say the spread of COVID-19 has gotten so bad the face covering requirement was needed — even for people with disabilities.

Jackie Farwell, director of communications for the state Department of Health and Human Services, said the federal Department of Justice has stated that the Americans with Disabilities Act “does not provide a blanket exemption to people with disabilities from complying with legitimate safety requirements necessary for safe operations.”

She also noted the Maine Attorney General’s Office and Department of Health and Human Services provides guidance for such situations.

“The Governor’s executive orders do not prohibit offering reasonable accommodations,” states that guidance. “Such accommodations may include offering the option of a face shield, allowing for take-out or curbside service, or use of the services of a personal shopper in the store. Due to the direct threat to public health and safety, however, no such accommodation may make it permissible for any person to enter or remain in any indoor setting without a face covering.”

Farwell said the Maine Center for Disease Control has worked to accommodate the Fecteaus needs. She said they provided additional options, such as offering curbside service or delivery, or having staff who are able to wear face coverings serve customers.

Co-owners Justin and Grace Fecteau laugh during an interview March 29, 2019, at Huiskamer Coffee House in downtown Augusta. Kennebec Journal photo by Joe Phelan

Justin Fecteau said the Plexiglas panels around Huiskamer’s counter, where Grace was often the only worker, were approved by the state and have proven to be safe by the shop’s lack of COVID-19 cases among staff or customers.

“The CDC already said our barrier works,” Justin Fecteau said. “We have had zero cases of COVID-19 from our coffee house. The Maine CDC (headquarters) can’t make the same claim.”

The Maine CDC building in downtown Augusta  was closed briefly at least once related to the pandemic, after a vendor had close contact with an employee who works there.

Kim Moody, executive director of Disability Rights Maine, agrees that the state’s executive orders specify that no one is exempt from the requirements that face coverings be worn in indoor public areas. But she noted accommodations are required to be made for people with disabilities to allow them to access goods and services.

Moody said wearing a face shield, instead of a mask, is considered a reasonable accommodation by the CDC for people with phobias about wearing a mask. She noted that “lots and lots of people with disabilities have compromised immune systems or otherwise have related health issues that put us at greater risk than the general public so yes, we hope people will wear masks when in public places.”

Moody said Disability Rights Maine supports the governor’s executive orders.

Both Fecteaus served in combat with the Army in Iraq and Justin said Grace has a “federally-protected, service-connected disability from military service.” He declined to specify whether she is able to wear a mask.

“In a normal world, no one has a right to our medical history or disability status,” Justin Fecteau said. “These days the disabled are expected to explain their medical history to anyone. Rhetoric coming from the Blaine House says that if you wear a mask, you care about people.

“This insinuates that if you can’t wear a mask, you don’t care about people,” he added. “Did people always point their fingers at the disabled, or only when they were emboldened to do it?”

Justin Fecteau said they have not been treated fairly by the state and are seeking legal counsel. He said they requested internal communications from the state CDC about them and found “several mistruths, unscientific and emotional behavior, and a lack of understanding of the rights of businesses and the disabled,” in that correspondence.

On social media, where dozens of customers and others expressed support for them, they wrote the coffee house is closing indefinitely due to “Governor Mills’ Executive Order and the unscientific and unprofessional CDC.” They also stated the state’s current leadership is making it impossible for some disabled people to be a part of society, and was treating their business differently than others.

Farwell disputed the Fecteau’s claims.

“The Health Inspection Program’s response to this matter is consistent with its approach to any business, in the interest of protecting public health,” she said. “DHHS will continue to partner with organizations, such as Disability Rights Maine, to protect the health, safety and rights of all Maine people, including those with disabilities, as we work to stem the tide of this unprecedented and deadly pandemic.”

Asked if Huiskamer had been cited for violating any pandemic-related state rules, Farwell said the state Health Inspection Program issued an imminent health hazard finding Nov. 19. That finding was due to a lack of face coverings worn by staff and inadequate spacing of seating for social distancing, which followed complaints the program received about the business. The finding did not include a financial penalty or order to cease operating, and she said the owners signed the document and agreed to remedy the issues.

Justin Fecteau, who is also a state representative and teacher, said they learned through the CDC’s internal communications that state employees were making anonymous complaints about their business. He said the agency also sent an employee without any identification to the shop where she attempted to push her way into the employee workspace.

Fecteau said a health inspector cited them for having a barstool that sits too close to a couch he said no one sits on, and stated their employee, who was behind the Plexiglas barrier, only pulled up her mask too slowly.

He said it is impossible for them to say how long the business will be closed.

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