Some Republican state lawmakers have violated a policy on mask wearing in the State House that was approved by legislative leaders from both parties to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Rep. Shelley Rudnicki, R-Fairfield, posted a Facebook Live video on Jan. 5 that features short interviews with five other Republican legislators inside the State House, apparently in the offices of the Republican minority caucus on the building’s third floor. The video shows at least seven lawmakers – all Republicans – and none are complying with the policy on face coverings set in December by the Legislative Council, which includes the Legislature’s presiding officers and the minority and majority leaders and assistants for both parties.

The unanimously approved nine-point COVID-19 prevention policy requires masks for lawmakers when they are in “any legislative space” at the State House complex, unless they are alone or in a cubicle at least 6 feet away from another person. Rudnicki, a frequent public critic of pandemic restrictions, incorrectly tells viewers that face coverings are not required because the group was gathered in a “private office” and was practicing social distancing. However, the video clearly shows that several of the lawmakers are far less than 6 feet from one another.

Suzanne Gresser, the Legislature’s nonpartisan executive director, said the masking requirement applies to all spaces in the State House. The policy requires that masks fully cover a person’s mouth and nose. It allows those who may have a medical or other condition that prevents them from wearing a mask to wear a clear face shield.

Rudnicki has previously said she cannot wear a cloth mask, but she has worn a face shield.

When reached by phone Wednesday, the Fairfield legislator declined to to be interviewed, saying she didn’t have time to discuss the matter as she was at work. She abruptly hung up.

On Thursday, state officials reported 808 new cases of the coronavirus in Maine and eight additional deaths, bringing the COVID-19 death toll to 461 since the onset of the pandemic here last March.

The other Republican lawmakers shown in the video without masks in place include Reps. Jennifer Poirier of Skowhegan, Amanda Collamore of Pittsfield, Beth O’Connor of Berwick, Chris Johansen of Monticello, Laurel Libby of Auburn, and Stacy Quint of Hodgdon.

John Bott, a spokesman for House Minority Leader Kathleen Dillingham, R-Oxford, issued a statement Wednesday saying Rudnicki’s “misconceptions” about where masks are required in the State House have been addressed.

“Rep. Rudnicki’s video was done on Jan. 5,” Bott said in an email. “Once Leader Dillingham became aware of the situation, she clarified and explained to Rep. Rudnicki the policy, and what constitutes a private office. To eliminate further confusion, the policy has again been explained and shared with caucus members that may have not been aware of it. It has been clearly expressed that members need to wear face masks and/or shields. We do not believe there is a group of lawmakers not following the policy, only a mistaken belief that the space was not covered by the policy.”

Russell Gauvin, chief of the Capitol Police, said he could not answer questions about enforcing the policy and referred a reporter to the Department of Public Safety, which includes Gauvin’s agency as well as the Maine State Police.

Katy England, a spokeswoman for the Department of Public Safety, said in a statement Thursday that the Capitol Police are responsible for enforcing the policy.

“The Capitol Police are responsible for assisting with the enforcement of the policy,” she said. “This means that if the Capitol Police observe, or become aware of, noncompliance among Legislators, staff, or others, they seek to educate these individuals about the policy and seek voluntary compliance. To date, anyone who has been asked to comply with this policy has done so in our presence. Refusal to comply with the policy can result in removal from the building.”

England said if Capitol Police are unable to adequately address compliance with the enforcement actions she mentioned, then “any potential further sanctions will need to be pursued by the Legislature, which has jurisdiction over the conduct of its members and staff.”

The Legislature’s presiding officers, House Speaker Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, and Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, confirmed that the policy requires facial coverings in all legislative spaces and the Capitol Police are meant to enforce the policy.

“This is the first violation in 2021 that we’re aware and it does seem to be a misunderstanding of the policy,” said Christine Kirby, a spokeswoman for Jackson.  “If there are repeated violations, we’ll go from there. As Capitol Police stated, enforcement includes possible removal from (the) building.”

Meanwhile, majority House Democrats in Congress have proposed fines for their colleagues who refuse to wear facial coverings. The fine for a first offense would be $500 and a second offense would by $2,500, with the fine being directly docked from the lawmaker’s pay, multiple news sources reported.

State lawmakers are returning to their work as Maine is struggling with an ever-rising number of infections. The state saw its highest daily COVID-19 case counts since the pandemic began on Wednesday, a day when the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported that another four people had died from the virus. COVID-19 had claimed the lives of more than 383,000 Americans as of Thursday, including the 461 in Maine.

Rudnicki has been a vocal opponent of pandemic restrictions put in place by Democratic Gov. Janet Mills, among them the mandate to wear masks in public spaces.

“To be honest with you, I think it’s idiotic,” Rudnicki says in another Facebook Live video posted last November. “But then again, how many of her edicts have made sense?”

Dozens of scientific studies have shown that masks, when worn properly, can dramatically reduce the spread of the virus, according to information available on the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website and in a variety of established medical journals. Although the virus continues to spread in Maine, the state has the third-lowest death rate per 100,000 in the nation, behind only Vermont and Alaska.


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