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How The Maine Legislature Is Attempting To Balance Safety And Public Access

Robert F. Bukaty
Associated Press
State Reps. Patrick W. Corey (left), R-Windham, and Jonathan Connor, R-Lewiston, sit socially distanced while waiting for the swearing-in ceremony to begin at the Augusta Civic Center, Wednesday, Dec 2, 2020, in Augusta, Maine.

As a new legislative session begins this week, legislative leaders have decided to continue rules passed last summer to combat the pandemic at the State House — with a few modifications.

The bottom line is the general public is banned from the building with access limited to legislators and their staff and essential third parties.

Maine Public reporter Mal Leary spoke with All Things Considered host Nora Flaherty about the start of the session.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Flaherty: Who are essential third parties?

Leary: The news media, contractors and delivery persons are considered essential. They will be allowed in the building. But everyone entering the building must screen themselves using a list of eight questions that sound a lot like what many health care providers are asking you when you visit their office. Questions like do you have a sore throat, or have a fever or have you traveled outside of Maine in the past 14 days? If you say yes to any of those questions, you’ll be asked to refrain from entering the building. And the policy also mandates that everyone in the building wear some sort of protective facial mask or shield.

We’ve all seen people in stores who aren’t following guidelines or even posted store policies that they need to wear a mask or some other face covering. How does the state plan to enforce that requirement?

Well, the council voted to instruct Capitol Police to enforce the mandate in the building. They’re not talking about arresting people, but the police will escort them out of the building. The council members stress the policies are all part of the effort to protect those that work in the building, as well as those that visit the State House. It’s all an effort to keep them as safe as possible from COVID-19.

And even as legislative leaders look to keep people as safe as possible, this could be certainly seen as making it harder for the public to participate in government. How are they trying to address that?

This obviously is going to change the way they participate. We’re not going to see those crowded public hearings, rallies in the Hall of Flags and crowded hallways. What they’re doing is building on policies adopted last summer that limit the number of lawmakers in a hearing room. The others will participate over a computer connection. The public will be asked to sign up to testify. They’ll be able to listen to the whole hearing, but they can only testify from their computer when the committee allows them to. It worked reasonably well on the few hearings that were held during the summer.

And for people who don’t have internet access, will they be limited to written testimony?

No, they won’t, although written testimony is encouraged. It’s an issue the council is studying. There’s a discussion of setting up a location where people can access a computer, but that’s not resolved. There’s also discussion to allow face-to-face meetings with constituents by legislators. Most lawmakers don’t have an office in the State House. And now they use several meeting rooms to meet with constituents on one-to-one meetings. The council is working to try to figure out a solution to that problem as well.

Nora is originally from the Boston area but has lived in Chicago, Michigan, New York City and at the northern tip of New York state. Nora began working in public radio at Michigan Radio in Ann Arbor and has been an on-air host, a reporter, a digital editor, a producer, and, when they let her, played records.
Journalist Mal Leary spearheads Maine Public's news coverage of politics and government and is based at the State House.