Seven lawmakers – six Republicans and one Libertarian – were stripped of their committee assignments after they entered the State House in Augusta on Monday without the face coverings required by the Legislative Council last week.

A video of the incident provided by one of the Republican lawmakers shows an officer with the Capitol Police confronting the seven legislators at the security checkpoint just inside the building, explaining that under the Legislature’s rules face masks must be worn by those in the building.

The seven argued that the rule on face coverings, approved on a partisan vote by the Legislative Council last week, contradicted the latest science on the COVID pandemic, guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the order of Gov. Janet Mills, who lifted the mask requirement for most indoor gatherings as of Monday.

When they were denied entry, the lawmakers asked for a meeting with House Speaker Ryan Fecteau. After a few minutes of discussion, Rep. John Andrews, a Libertarian from Paris, walked past the security guards and into the building, saying he would wait at his desk, according to a video of the incident that Rep. Laurel Libby, R-Auburn, provided as part of a news release. The other six spoke with a representative from Fecteau’s office for a few more minutes before they too continued to their offices without masks.

Later Monday, Fecteau removed the seven from their House committee assignments and appointed replacements.

In addition to Andrews and Libby, the seven included Reps. Sherm Hutchins, R-Penobscot; Chris Johansen, R-Monticello; Heidi Sampson, R-Alfred; Michael Lemelin, R-Chelsea; and Jim Thorne, R-Carmel.

Two of the representatives said the confrontation over the mask rule wasn’t planned.

“It was kind of a non-event,” Hutchins said in a phone interview Monday night.

Hutchins said he happened to drive up at the same time that a handful of other representatives did and they all thought that the mask requirement had been lifted because of Mills’ latest order.

“It was the first morning in a long time that I didn’t take a mask in with me,” he said. Hutchins said he stopped at several stores and restaurants Monday afternoon on his way back to Penobscot and didn’t wear a mask or have any issues over mask-wearing.

He said Fecteau’s decision to strip him of his committee assignment isn’t a big deal because his committee, Marine Resources, has completed its work for the year.

Sampson also said that she wasn’t in on any planning, if there was any, to provoke a confrontation over the mask rule.

She conceded, however, that “at least for one person, there was an expectation” that the lawmakers would be stopped because one of them had arranged to have a family member videotape the incident. Sampson declined to say which lawmaker arranged the videotaping.

Like Hutchins, Sampson said having her Education Committee assignment revoked is not a big deal because her committee wrapped up its work Monday. She said she took part in the committee meeting because it was held before Fecteau issued letters stripping the lawmakers of the committee assignments.

She said the Legislature should amend its rules on mask-wearing before lawmakers reconvene next Tuesday.

“We spent over a year (with officials saying) ‘Listen to the science,’ but now it doesn’t fit your narrative,” Sampson said in a phone interview Monday night. “Now in the Legislature, it’s not a convenient message? I don’t get it.”

Messages left for the other five lawmakers were not returned Monday night.

John Bott, a spokesman for the Maine House Republicans, said the masking policy has not been posted at the State House, and Republican members of the Legislature want to follow the governor’s latest rules on masking.

He said having rules for lawmakers that are different from the governor’s orders for the public will create “chaos.”

Bott conceded that Fecteau has the power, as speaker, to remove the lawmakers from their committees and he didn’t know if Republican leaders would contest the move or complain to Fecteau about it. Bott also said that he is unsure if there will be any more confrontations over the mask rule because the Legislature is in an interim period before lawmakers return for a final session next week.

“It’s just unfortunate because these members have been following the rules for 15 months,” he said. “We are going to continue to push for following the science and the CDC guidelines and the governor’s rules.”

In a letter to the Legislature explaining his decision to discipline the lawmakers, Fecteau said that the masking policy had been maintained because “there are still many people among non-partisan staff, fellow members, our guests (particularly those under the age of 12) and our families at home who have not been able to get vaccinated. Thus, the policy maintains the requirement for face coverings.”

He went on to ask lawmakers to “demonstrate a respect for our shared workplace. …

“The COVID-19 Prevention Policy has received a great deal of attention, but it is not the first policy adopted by the Legislative Council over the years. And it is certainly not the only set of standards or rules that members are expected to follow.”

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