AUGUSTA — An ongoing dispute between a group of conservative legislators and Democratic leaders in the Maine Legislature over whether lawmakers should have to wear face coverings when they return to the State House next week was no closer to resolution following a meeting of the Legislative Council on Thursday.

The council, which includes the leaders of both the minority and majority caucuses in the House and the Senate and the speaker of the House and the Senate president – in all, six Democrats and four Republicans – took no additional action on a policy they set last week leaving in effect a mask mandate for lawmakers and the public entering the State House or conducting business there in public areas, including the House and Senate chambers.

House Speaker Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

House Speaker Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, who earlier this week removed seven House members, including six Republicans and one Libertarian, from their committee assignments after they defied the rule and entered the State House without face coverings, said he intends to have orderly proceedings when the Legislature returns to the Capitol on Tuesday for the first time since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in Maine last year.

“We will not have a House that is not in order,” Fecteau said, referencing a common order of the House speaker, the presiding officer of the chamber. “The House will be in order and we will find a way to make sure that’s the case — that’s the bottom line for me.”

Fecteau said he had received “veiled threats” over the decision and that he was still unwavering in the decision to keep the mask rule.

House Minority Leader Kathleen Dillingham, R-Oxford, urged Fecteau to reconsider his punishment and restore the lawmakers who had been removed from their committees. But she also said she recognized the rules of the Legislative Council were meant to be enforced, even if she didn’t personally agree with them or vote for them.

“But one thing that I do not condone and will never condone is when there is disagreement about the debate that we then move to very intimidating personal attacks and language for any of our members. I don’t support it, I don’t condone it, I don’t support trying to get the public to make threatening statements because there are individuals who have different viewpoints on policy,” Dillingham said.

Fecteau said the rule to keep the mask mandate in place was meant as a final precaution and to protect lawmakers, the public and State House staff, some with children under 12 who cannot be vaccinated against the virus yet or who may otherwise be at high risk for severe infection, including those battling cancer.

“We oversee the entire function of this legislative body,” Fecteau said, “this State House and therefore all the offices of the people that work in this building. It’s how do I make sure that all the folks that have to come into this building every day to do their jobs feel like we have struck the right balance in ensuring that they are safe and their families are safe.”

On Monday, the seven House members defied the rule and a request from a Capitol Police officer to don masks or leave when they entered the State House unmasked. Only one of those seven has disclosed their vaccination status. Rep. John Andrews, a Libertarian from Paris, said in an email Thursday he had received two doses of the Moderna vaccine and was four weeks past his second dose.

“Vaccination is an individual choice and it was the right choice for me, but people need to be free to choose what’s best for themselves,” Andrews wrote in the email to the Press Herald. “I meet the requirements put forth by Gov. Mills and the CDC. I should be accorded the same treatment as any other citizen and not be treated differently by the political animal that is (the) Legislative Council. A Council, I may add, that as a Libertarian, I have no representation on.”

The six Republicans who were sanctioned have not said whether they are vaccinated or not, although at least one of them Rep. Laurel Libby ofAuburn, previously worked on an unsuccessful statewide referendum seeking to overturn a law mandating that children attending public and private school in Maine are vaccinated against common childhood diseases.

Libby is also among a group of Republican lawmakers who has repeatedly flouted the Legislature’s rules around masking, appearing earlier in the pandemic without a face covering while meeting with colleagues at the Legislature. She was also among a handful of lawmakers who have chosen to use a style of a clear plastic face shield that the Maine CDC has said would be ineffective at preventing the spread of the virus.

Libby did not respond to messages asking about her vaccination status, and a message to the spokesman for House Republicans also went unanswered on Thursday. Republicans are arguing they are following the current recommendations from Gov. Janet Mills and state and federal CDC officials who have said those who are vaccinated do not need to wear face coverings while indoors.

On Wednesday, Maine CDC Director Nirav Shah again addressed the topic specifically as it pertains to the Legislature during a briefing on the state’s response to the virus and the status of the pandemic in Maine, which so far has claimed more than 800 Maine lives.

“Right now there are two questions that I urge folks to keep in mind as they are thinking about whether they need to be wearing a mask,” Shah said. “The first question is, ‘Are you fully vaccinated?’ And if so, then there are a lot of places where you may not need to wear a mask indoors. The second question, though, is, ‘Where are you going?’ And if you are going somewhere that itself requires the wearing of masks indoors, well you are going to their house, then those are the rules that apply. Whether it’s a workplace, whether it’s a friend’s house, whether it’s a restaurant, whether it’s a retailer, that’s the governing set of rules that applies.”

It remained unclear Thursday what additional sanctions Fecteau could impose on lawmakers who refuse to wear a face covering when the Legislature returns next week, but Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, said he too would impose sanctions if Senate Republicans also choose to defy the masking mandate at the State House.

Fecteau and Senate Majority Leader Eloise Vitelli, D-Arrowsic, also urged their colleagues to focus on the important work at hand next instead of being distracted by the politics of masking.

“We have a lot of work to do ahead of us in a very short timeframe,” Vitelli said. “I’m looking forward to getting our work done and I would point out there is no penalty for wearing a mask, so if that’s what it takes to get our work done, that should be the focus of our conversation.”

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