AUBURN — The day after the Androscoggin County Commission met to consider a resolution opposing mandatory face coverings in public, Sheriff Eric Samson sent commissioners a letter Thursday saying he and his staff would not attend future meetings due to the risk of contracting COVID-19.

Sheriff Eric Samson at his desk in the Androscoggin County Sheriff’s office in Auburn in April 2020. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal file photo

“I wanted to inform you that myself and members of the Sheriff’s Office will not participate in in-person commissioners’ meetings moving forward unless they are closed to the public and offered to the public via Zoom,” he wrote. “I would encourage the use of Zoom for meeting purposes and if you do not wish to have staff present I would also be willing to participate via Zoom.

“Staff and I have worked very hard to limit risks of exposure, and due to room capacity and attendance with last night’s meeting along with future public interests that may follow, I would prefer to limit our risks of exposure,” he wrote. “This is not a political stance or a criticism in any regard, I just need to look out for staff health and safety. You may have noticed that I have not regularly attended as I have in the past for that same reason, unless I had an agenda item or through the budget process.”

Because most of the spectators at Wednesday night’s meeting in the county building were maskless and bunched closely together in the room, commissioners asked Samson to help enforce the social distancing mandates dictated by the state. He asked some of the spectators to move to a room downstairs where they could watch the proceedings.

Samson said he was certainly aware of the dozens of people not wearing masks, but said Thursday that the commissioners did not ask him to address that topic.

“The governor’s orders call for masks and social distancing,” Samson said. “It was the commissioners’ meeting. I was there just to give a report and I left after that. I did what they asked me to do.”

He added that the situation is no different than if a person in law enforcement goes into a store and sees someone without a mask. That individual can’t act unless asked by the store manager.

The crowd attended Wednesday’s meeting on a proposal by Commissioner Isaiah Lary of Wales opposing the executive orders from Gov. Janet Mills mandating face coverings in public, limiting the size of gatherings and other restrictions enacted during the COVID-19 pandemic.

One after another, 23 members of the public spoke against the face mask requirement and other issues surrounding the pandemic in more than two hours of public discussion.

No one spoke in support of the governor’s mandates.

“The governor would have us believe that not enough people are following the guidelines, and that’s why COVID-19 numbers continue to climb,” William Kenniston of Livermore Falls said. “The government and mockingbird media want Mainers to blame other Mainers for the prolong suffering. Those in power are the ones hurting people of Maine by their action and inaction.”

Lary’s resolution resolved that “all citizens, businesses and visitors of Androscoggin County are free to wear or not wear masks or other similar devices, and to peaceably assemble for religious or secular reasons, according to the dictates of their own conscience and preference.”

After commissioners voted 4-3 to postpone action on the resolution, the crowd left angry and disgusted and promised to return in two weeks when commissioners will take up the topic again.

Commissioner Terri Kelly of Mechanic Falls wanted more time to consider everything she heard and proposed that the commission table the vote for two weeks. Chairwoman Sally Christner of Turner and Commissioners Noel Madore and Roland Poirier, both of Lewiston, agreed with Kelly on the postponement.

Unlike past meetings, County Administrator Larry Post and every commissioner except Lary wore a mask during the meeting. The desks were also arranged so they were socially distanced from one another.

Paul Gokukin addresses Androscoggin County commissioners Wednesday night at the county building in Auburn. He covers his face with his shirt, saying it’s as effective as a cloth mask against COVID-19 and that he believes masks are basically useless. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

The motion to postpone was made after Commissioner John Michael of Auburn offered a competing resolution imploring the state to consider all scientific research and “not merely CDC guidelines that may be political.”

Michael’s resolution did not follow the path of Lary’s proposal that says masks are optional in the county, which the county can’t legally do.

On Thursday, Michael said he understands the frustration with the mandates, but overriding the governor’s orders is beyond the county’s scope.

“That’s not within our authority to do that, but we can always lobby,” Michael said.

Michael said his proposal encourages the consideration of alternative research and information. “An exchange of ideas is good,” he said.

His proposal cites the controversial Great Barrington Declaration that calls on herd immunity with the young and healthy to eventually protect the population while utilizing “focused protection” for the elderly and at-risk individuals. Developed by three doctors, the declaration has been signed by 13,542 medical and public health scientists throughout the world.

Using the declaration as a template, Michael’s resolution says “the old and affirm should be protected as a priority through the use of focused protection.” Also in addition to following simple hygiene measures, all schools and universities should open, extracurricular activities should resume and restaurants, other businesses and cultural activities should also open.

The Barrington plan has been widely criticized by public health groups and the World Health Organization.

“If followed, the recommendations in the Great Barrington Declaration would haphazardly and unnecessarily sacrifice lives,” 14 public health groups, including the Trust for America’s Health and the American Public Health Association, wrote in mid-October.

“The declaration is not a strategy, it is a political statement. It ignores sound public health expertise. It preys on a frustrated populace. Instead of selling false hope that will predictably backfire, we must focus on how to manage this pandemic in a safe, responsible, and equitable way.”

Neither the declaration nor the resolution mentions masks or social distancing.

The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the Maine Department of Human Services say that face masks are highly effective in combating the virus.

“The scientific evidence supporting the effectiveness of wearing masks to limit the spread of COVID-19 is clear and well established in the U.S. and globally,” Jackie Farwell, director of communications for the Maine DHHS said in a statement released Monday. “Based on this evidence, the U.S. CDC has called on Americans to wear masks as a powerful weapon to slow transmission of the virus, protect their communities, and get back to normal faster.”

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