AUGUSTA — Anyone coming to an Augusta City Council meeting or into Augusta City Center will still be required to wear a mask, even if they have been vaccinated against COVID-19.

Augusta city officials, like those in many other area towns reached Monday, don’t yet plan to lift requirements to wear masks for at least the next four weeks. Others, however, have opted to end the mask requirement put in place to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.

Mayor David Rollins said an informal, 4-3 straw poll vote by Augusta councilors last week to require masks to be worn when City Council meetings return to in-person sessions this week reflects a similar-looking split on the mask issue that has divided the country.

“That was an informative discussion, and pretty much where we are as a nation, 4-3, on this subject,” Rollins said after a wide ranging debate amongst councilors at their meeting last week.

With the state lifting many coronavirus-related restrictions for public areas, including requirements that people who have been vaccinated against COVID-19 wear masks, maintain safe social distances and not gather in large groups, Augusta city councilors are scheduled to meet in person, instead of virtually, for the first time in months Thursday.

Last week some city councilors questioned City Manager William Bridgeo’s stance, outlined in a memo he sent to councilors May 17, that people should be required to wear masks to attend council meetings.

“I’m curious as to why, people who’ve been vaccinated, why we’re still requiring them to wear a mask,” said Ward 3 Councilor Michael Michaud, later adding: “I certainly don’t want to put anybody in harm’s way. Certainly if anybody hasn’t been vaccinated, I think they’re supposed to be masked indoors. And anybody that has been vaccinated that feels uncomfortable certainly would have that right to mask up anytime. But when does it become your choice?”

In Augusta’s case, at the suggestion of At-Large City Councilor Courtney Allen, that could come in four weeks when councilors will revisit the requirement.

The decision on whether to require masks at Augusta City Center, and other city public facilities such as the Buker Community Center which has a child care program, may rest with Bridgeo. He said that at least during the business day, employees who meet in-person with the public and all members of the public, should still be required to wear masks.

“There’s still half the adult Maine population out there that either hasn’t been able to or refuses to get vaccinated, so we are nowhere near herd immunity at this point,” Bridgeo said. “And we do have city employees who can’t get vaccinated because of immune system problems, their physicians have advised them not to. … There are no easy answers here, and we’ll do our best to follow the science and not be a pain in the neck unnecessarily to people.”

He said the city has an area on the side of City Center where residents who need to conduct business with the city, but can’t or don’t want to wear a mask, can be outside and receive services from a city employee who’ll be inside, through a window. He said any service offered inside can also be provided in that way.

Bridgeo said it will likely be left up to the leaders of groups using City Center at night, including the council, Greater Augusta Utilities District, and the city school and planning boards, to decide whether to require masks at their meetings.

Most officials from other area municipalities reached Monday indicated they don’t yet plan to lift requirements to wear masks at their public buildings or meetings, or said they hadn’t yet had a chance to discuss what to do now that the state has lifted many, but not all, of its restrictions. Here are what some area municipalities are doing:

GARDINER

In Gardiner, the City Council and other city boards have been meeting via Zoom since the start of the pandemic.

Acting City Manager Anne Davis said Monday that the goal is to return to in-person meetings, but that will hinge on when the people involved in those meetings — city councilors, board and committee members, and city staff — are comfortable meeting in person, but safety comes first.

“Last March, the Legislature voted to allow online meetings through the state of emergency and ending 30 days after the emergency ends,” Davis said. “Should Gov. Mills end the state of emergency, we will react accordingly. We do not want to go through fits and starts with inviting the public back to in-person meetings and then go back to remote meetings.”

WEST GARDINER

In West Gardiner, the requirement to wear masks and maintain distances will remain in place at least until the Board of Selectmen meets Thursday, Town Clerk Angela Phillis said, when the board is expected to determine whether to revise the town’s policy.

Phillis said the selectmen have continued their weekly meetings, with some people making appointments to meet with board members in person and others meeting with them via telephone.

“We’ve tried to work with anyone how they want to handle situations,” Phillis said.

SOMERVILLE

In Somerville, officials plan to stay the course of what they’ve been doing, which includes requiring people coming into its small town office to wear masks and have appointments.

Town Clerk Erica Tompkins said the appointment requirement has as much to do with a desire to limit the number of people coming to the office for services at the same time due to staff changes there as it does with the coronavirus pandemic. She said nearly all meetings of town officials have taken place virtually on Zoom, though she wasn’t sure how long that would continue.

WASHINGTON, WINDSOR

In Washington, anyone entering the town office is still asked to wear a mask in public areas. According to Town Clerk Mary Anderson, town office staff will also continue to wear masks, at least until the end of June when that will be reevaluated.

Windsor Town Manager Theresa Haskell said for now masks and social distancing are still required to come into town hall, but selectmen meet Tuesday night and are expected to discuss whether or not to change that policy in light of the state rules.

READFIELD

Readfield updated its guidance via a memo posted to its website Friday.

Starting Monday, vaccinated residents and staff will no longer be required to wear masks while in the public areas of the town office, while unvaccinated residents and staff will still be required to wear them.

Special hours set aside for senior citizens or those with medical considerations are ending as of Monday and the modified work schedule is also ending.

The town will also return to in-person board and committee meetings but will try to continue to offer ways that people can continue to take part virtually.

LITCHFIELD

In Litchfield, town residents are no longer required to wear masks in the town office, Town Manager Kelly Weissenfels said.

“We have sliding glass partitions, so if someone is concerned, we can close the glass across the counter while we’re working with them,” Weissenfels said.

Litchfield’s Board of Selectmen has been meeting via Zoom, with selectmen at the town office. The board was expected to discuss whether meetings can be opened to the general public during its meeting Monday.

Lifting public gathering restrictions is also expected to affect upcoming Town Meetings and municipal elections.

A year ago, Litchfield’s Town Meeting was delayed by about a month, and to meet social distancing requirements, it was held at the Litchfield Fairgrounds.

This year, the municipal election will take place at the Sportsman’s Club, and the Town Meeting will take place June 12 in the Carrie Ricker School gymnasium.

WINTHROP

In Winthrop, town officials have lifted masking requirements in town facilities in accordance with the revised state policy.

“We do have some signage that encourages unvaccinated (people) to mask, but it’s just exactly that,” Winthrop Town Manager Jeffrey Kobrock said. “It encourages them because Maine didn’t reiterate that CDC guidance.”

The town is not yet lifting capacity requirements, however, for public areas. Kobrock said capacity continues to be monitored in the front office, which is fairly small.

And starting June 7, Winthrop Town Council meetings will be held in person, with public able to attend.

 

Bridgeo said balancing the interest of people who don’t want to wear masks, especially with the new state guidance, with the need to keep employees and members of the public safe, has been a vexing issue.

“Again, this all sucks, alright, and none of us are happy with any of it, and we’re all dead tired of dealing with it,” he said during last week’s meeting. “And the people I feel the most sympathy for are none of us around this screen, but the rank and file employees who have to bear the brunt of people’s frustrations day after day after day.”

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