Protesters stand in front of the east side portico Jan. 18, 2020, during the Hands Around the Capitol anti-abortion rally, where protesters circle the Capitol building at the Maine State House in Augusta. After initially paring down the annual event, organizers cited safety in their decided to cancel, noting the pandemic and potential unrest at state capitols around the country.  Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal file Buy this Photo

AUGUSTA — For the first time in 48 years, there will be no Hands Around the Capitol due to possible unrest at the State House complex and the coronavirus pandemic.

The event, organized by the nonprofit Maine Right to Life, has been held annually for 47 years since the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion. Last year, about 500 people attended the event despite cold weather.

Attendees march, rally and worship at the state capital during the event “to pray that all will come to realize the value of human life from conception to natural death,” according to a news release from Dave Guthro, communications director for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland.

Karen Vashon, executive director of Maine Right to Life, said the group canceled the event after initially paring down the planned activities. She said that several similar marches were canceled in other parts of the country.

“I just felt it was important that we be extra cautious here,” Vashon said. “We were planning a very, very simple solemn outdoor event only.”

She said the decision was made for the safety of nonprofit staff, volunteers and attendees, with uncertainty about the safety of public gatherings during the coronavirus pandemic and potential unrest at state capitals related to the transfer of power from President Donald Trump to President Joe Biden.

“We’ve got radicals on both sides here and we have a nation on high alert,” Vashon said. “These are uneasy times.”

The threat of unrest at Maine’s Capitol caused a larger-than-normal police presence on Sunday in Augusta weeks after the deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, but protestors never came.

Vashon cited increasing COVID-19 case counts in the state as another reason for the event’s cancellation. On Wednesday, the Maine CDC announced 701 more cases of COVID-19, as well as 11 deaths.

The cancellation was also announced by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Maine on Tuesday, stating that the Saturday event was cancelled “due to safety concerns.” In an email, diocese spokesperson Dave Guthro said the event was not being rescheduled for this year.

“The organizers canceled it over the general threats of violence to statehouses around the country,” he said. “Organizers felt they couldn’t guarantee safety of participants this year, so they made the tough call.”

Guthro said the diocese does not help organize the event, but Bishop Robert Deeley, celebrates the Mass and participates in the rally.

“I was just helping them get the word out with just a few days until the event,” he said.

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