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Some Health Professionals Say Maine's New Mask Mandate Doesn't Go Far Enough

Robert F. Bukaty
AP Images
Commuters from Peaks Island arrive on the mainland, Thursday, May 21, 2020, in Portland, Maine.

This week Gov. Janet Mills issued an executive order to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The goal is to boost enforcement of a previous statewide order to wear face coverings in public when physical distancing is difficult.

The order requires businesses to enforce the face covering mandate, but it applies only to certain businesses in certain counties and cities. Some Mainers who work in health care say that patchwork approach does not go far enough.

Wearing a mask is a given where Dr. Joseph Babbitt works. H is an emergency department physician at Northern Light CA Dean Hospital in Greenville. But when Babbitt steps out into the community, he says, it is a different story.

"In the areas where I live and work in the Greenville area, mask use is low," he says.

That is why Babbitt is disappointed that Mills' order does not apply to the county he lives in, Piscataquis. Instead, it applies to seven Maine coastal counties from York to Hancock, as well as the cities of Bangor, Brewer, Lewiston, Auburn and Augusta. According to a written statement from the Mills' administration, the order focuses on areas that attract tourists and have larger congregations of people.

Credit Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP File
AP File
Though the enforcement order is not universal, some health care professionals say it is a positive step.

But Greenville is also a tourist destination. Babbitt says the population has already more than doubled this summer. And since a previous order in April requires face coverings statewide, he does not understand why the latest enforcement effort is not also statewide.

"It's more confusing, it's less consistent, and it also, to me, sort of promotes the psychology of, well, there are appropriate times when it's not necessary for some people, or some populations, or some settings to be safe."

Further west at Franklin Community Health Network in Farmington, President Trampas Hutches says he was surprised that Mills' enforcement order applies only to certain areas.

"I do wish it was across the state,” Hutches says. “You know, enforcement across the board may be easier and help the community understand the seriousness of the disease."

The order also only applies to certain businesses in designated counties and cities: lodging establishments, restaurants, outdoor bars and tasting rooms, and retailers with more than 50,000 square feet of shopping space. 

One type of retailer routinely visited by consumers is not specifically on the list: grocery stores. A spokesperson for Shaws says that 17 of its 21 stores are greater than 50,000 square feet. 

But a spokesperson for Hannaford says that the overwhelming majority of its stores are not affected by the mandate. Ericka Dodge says in an email, however, that the company does require customers to wear masks in stores.  

The Mills administration, meanwhile,  says it's optimistic that stores across the state will increase enforcement in the wake of the Executive Order

Though the enforcement order is not universal, some health care professionals say it is a positive step.

"I think that the order was good. I think it would be nice if it were statewide," says Patty Hamilton, the public health director for Bangor.

Bangor is included in Mills' enforcement order, but the county it sits in, Penobscot, is not. Hamilton suspects that Mills needed to be strategic when considering how to enforce face coverings.

"The mandated part, I think, is the tricky part, and that's the part people are getting a lot of pushback on," Hamilton says.

At Bangor-based Northern Light Health Eastern Maine Medical Center, Dr. James Jarvis says he hopes that the order will help exert positive peer pressure to wear face coverings to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

"There's literature from the health community and research department that really support that and show that in areas where people have embraced using social distancing and face coverings, that the number of cases of disease have gone down," says Jarvis.

Dr. Babbitt, from Northern Light CA Dean Hospital in Greenville, says he is dismayed that more people in his community are not wearing masks. It may be because, on paper, Piscataquis County looks relatively untouched by COVID-19. Only five cases have been reported. But Babbitt says the disease is there.

"Most of the patient encounters I've had in the last two weeks have not been with people from Piscataquis County,” he says. “They're people in Piscataquis County from either higher prevalence southern Maine counties like Cumberland and York, or higher prevalence states like New York, New Jersey and Florida."

And some of those patients, Babbitt says, had COVID-19. He wishes people would remember that wearing masks is not about protecting yourself — it's about protecting others. He says a universal policy might better help drive that message home.