SKOWHEGAN — The debate over mask-wearing and providing proof of COVID-19 vaccination took center stage this week, as local officials debated the town government’s stance and its role in combating the pandemic.

The Board of Selectmen convened Tuesday evening at the Community Center to discuss town matters, including amendments to the town’s COVID-19 precautions to reflect changes that went into effect statewide on Monday.

A divided board ultimately voted to require masks for unvaccinated people inside municipal buildings, but town employees must provide proof of vaccination to go unmasked while the honor system applies to the public.

“Masks are a part of the solution, not the one thing that fixes this, and if you listen to all of the guidance and science, it’s a combination of things, like distancing, masks and vaccinations,” Town Manager Christine Almand said during the meeting. “The goal for herd immunity is 70% and we’re not there yet, but all of these things play a role, not one particular item.”

Monday marked the state’s dropping of its mask mandate, even though businesses and government offices still have the option of requiring their use. Earlier this week, municipalities around central Maine weighed in on how they will proceed with COVID-19 precautions following the most recent change.

As of Wednesday, Skowhegan has a COVID-19 vaccination rate of 56%; countywide, 45.6% of the population in Somerset County has received a final dose of vaccine, while statewide 50.81% of residents, or 682,978, have been vaccinated. Somerset County remains the county with the lowest percentage of its population vaccinated. To date, 2,169 cases of COVID-19 have been documented in Somerset County as well as 31 deaths and 75 hospitalizations.

Skowhegan select board members were split on how to change the policy, with some members in support of changing the town’s policy to echo the state’s recent guidance, while others felt it necessary to proceed with caution.

Roger Staples, Betty Austin and Chairman Paul York all spoke in favor of amending the town’s policy to reflect that town employees must show proof of vaccination before unmasking; those who are not vaccinated must wear a face covering. Additionally, they support waving social distancing requirements.

When it comes to the community members, the same rules apply, though they will not need to provide proof of vaccination upon entering town buildings — the honor system applies. For large gatherings, like the annual Town Meeting next weekend, masks will be required.

Staples encouraged the board to look at the vaccination rates in Somerset County, which are the lowest in the state.

“As elected officials, it is our job to protect the residents of Skowhegan,” Staples said.

Selectmen Todd Smith and Charles Robbins questioned the need for requiring proof of vaccination from town employees.

In the memo that Almand had sent out to the board prior to the meeting, she wrote that she plans to “require proof of vaccination from employees, and by extension, members of boards and committees prior to allowing them indoors without face coverings to be consistent with legal obligations and guidance.”

“I guess I don’t see what the big deal is if you’re vaccinated to show proof that you’re vaccinated,” York said. “I’m not sure why you would have a problem with showing proof that you’re vaccinated.”

Almand compared the proof of vaccine requirement to the same documentation requirements for the Hepatitis B vaccine that the Department of Labor has for employees.

“They don’t allow us to take the employee’s word; we have to have the medical documentation to prove that,” Almand said.

“I think that it is our obligation to ensure that our employees are being honest if you’re using the honor system,” Almand said, explaining that if they’re presenting this policy to the town, then they should be more than OK with providing proof of vaccination.

Smith and Robbins were both in support of amending the language to reflect that masking up should be recommended, not required, for everyone.

“I would recommend that it’s not a rule. If you’d like to (wear a face covering) by all means do it,” Smith said. “But if you don’t want to, or you’re vaccinated, I’m not sure what the fear is” for others if they themselves are vaccinated and somebody is not wearing a mask. “That’s my perspective,” Smith said.

Robbins echoed similar thoughts, saying that town employees, including selectmen, “should not have to provide proof if we’re vaccinated or not.”

Fire Chief Shawn Howard spoke up during the discussion, asking the group to come up with some kind of guidance for departments to follow. Speaking from a management perspective, Howard said that he had been requiring proof of vaccination from his employees in months prior; if employees decided not to provide proof of vaccination, they are required to wear a mask.

“I did that (months ago) because there was no direction from this board on whether to do that or not. That discussion never took place,” Howard said. “As a department head I had to make a decision and that’s what I did.”

Howard then suggested that requiring employees to provide proof or otherwise mask up “is the most prudent thing to do.” He added that most of the department is vaccinated.

Howard said that he does not like the idea of town employees following the honor system, because in his department, where there are a limited number of firefighters, having any leave work to quarantine puts the community at risk.

“If they start going out of work because they’re being quarantined, that is a safety issue for my other employees and that is a safety issue for the residents of this town,” Howard said.

The board ultimately voted in favor of requiring town employees to provide proof of vaccination, using the honor system with community members and waiving social distancing requirements. The vote was 3-2, with Smith and Robbins opposed.

Almand said on Tuesday evening that an email would be sent out to staff with clearer guidance on how to provide documentation.

In other business, Jeff McCabe was appointed to the Planning Board, with a term expiring on June 30, 2022.

The board also gave the town manager the OK to apply for the 6(F) Land & Water Conversion for Memorial Field as part of School Administrative District 54’s new school project to replace North Elementary.

The town’s Memorial Day Parade will begin at 10 a.m. on Monday at the Dyer Street and Madison Avenue intersection.

The annual Town Meeting will be held on Saturday, June 5, at the Opera House. Masks will be required and the meeting will begin at 10 a.m., with 68 articles listed on the warrant. Big-ticket items include $1,828,889 for general government; $1,798,599 for the Police Department; and $1,194,936 for the Fire Department.

The secret ballot election will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Tuesday, June 8; absentee ballots are now available.

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