Senators stand for the opening prayer on Dec. 2, the first day of the 130th Maine Legislature. Each senator had a personal table in the ballroom at the Augusta Civic Center. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

AUGUSTA — The Legislative Council upgraded COVID-19 protections Thursday by designating three specific types of face shield as alternatives to cloth masks that may be worn by lawmakers in the State House.

The action comes after concerns were raised about plastic face shields being used by some lawmakers that were deemed ineffective at preventing the spread of the coronavirus because the shields only partially cover a person’s face.

The new policy allows only those face shields that fully cover the mouth and nose while also wrapping around the sides of the face. A memo to the council from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention also reiterates that the U.S. CDC recommends against the use of face shields for protection but does view them as an alternative for those who may be unable to wear a cloth facial covering.

The council, composed of leaders from both parties, serves as the governing body for the Legislature, including the State House grounds and facilities.

House Speaker Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, said photos of the approved shields would be provided for reference, and the Legislature would also purchase some of the shields to ensure that lawmakers who were unable to wear a cloth facial covering would have access to them if needed.

Assistant House Minority Leader Joel Stetkis, R-Canaan, said the members in his caucus who wanted to wear face shields had breathing issues. “A mask that you or I could wear is actually less healthy for them and in some cases would actually make them pass out and cause more medical problems than what the mask is supposed to do,” Stetkis said. “And then the other issue is claustrophobic-type issues.”

Lawmakers who can’t wear a mask or shield because of a medical condition are allowed to participate in meetings remotely.

The policy shift comes after news that a member of the House Republican staff had tested positive for COVID-19. Members of the council also disclosed Thursday it was not the first case of COVID-19 at the State House, noting an undisclosed number of nonpartisan staff members have previously tested positive for the virus.

Members of the Maine House take the oath of office Dec. 2 at the Augusta Civic Center, set apart to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Associated Press/Robert F. Bukaty

The masking issue came to a head after a small group of Republican lawmakers, some of whom have publicly railed against mandates requiring facial coverings for months, appeared in a Facebook Live video post by Rep. Shelley Rudnicki, R-Fairfield, earlier this month as they met in a State House office. The meeting was a clear violation of a legislative policy set in December to prevent the spread of the virus.

Rep. Laurel Libby, R-Auburn, attends a virtual meeting of the Judiciary Committee from her desk in the House of Representatives. The state CDC says the chin-shield type mask she wore is not effective in preventing the spread of the coronavirus. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

The clear plastic face shields used by Rudnicki and another lawmaker in the group, Rep. Laurel Libby, R-Auburn, also came under criticism this month when the Maine CDC said it would not recommend using the device as a means of protecting against COVID-19 spread.

Legislatures around the country have wrestled with keeping the virus in check while they meet to conduct the people’s business, and more than 200 legislators nationally have been infected with the virus, according to a recent report by The Associated Press.

In many states Republicans have resisted masking mandates, claiming the requirement is an infringement upon their constitutional rights, while Democrats have largely embraced the requirements, noting they are meant to protect public safety and save lives by limiting the spread of the disease to those who may suffer severe symptoms from it.

Republican resistance to masking requirements was stoked, in large part, by former Republican President Donald Trump, who often went without facial coverings, including during appearances in Maine before throngs of supporters in June and October of last year.

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