Pulse Newsletter: Pandemic Politicized, Mills' Mask Mandate Provokes Protesters

Nov 20, 2020

For the past few weeks, a particular scene has repeated itself several times.

It starts with a protester’s arrival at the governor’s mansion in Augusta in a car festooned with American flags and bumper sticker slogans familiar to those who consume internet-born conspiracies proliferating on social media.

“Mills kills” is scrawled on one of her side windows and across the sign she carries. The words are hard to read from a distance, but easy to hear as she bellows at passersby while pacing the fence line of the Blaine House.

The woman is here to protest Democratic Gov. Janet Mills’ latest pandemic mandate, an executive order issued Nov. 5 requiring Mainers to wear face masks in public places.

She doesn’t wear a mask, nor is she made to.

Instead, Capitol Police and members of the governor’s security detail monitor from a distance, allowing the woman to exercise the same civil liberties she says the governor has taken from her.

Protesters rally against the executive orders by Gov. Janet Mills keep some of Maine businesses closed to help prevent the spread of coronavirus, Saturday, May 16, 2020, in Augusta, Maine.
Credit Robert F. Bukaty / Associated Press

While polling suggests the protestor represents a small minority of Mainers’ views on masks and pandemic restrictions, the restraint against enforcing the mask mandate outside of the governor’s residence is arguably illustrative of the Mills administration’s approach to other public health mandates during the pandemic.

Last spring, the governor was initially reluctant to close restaurants and bars to in-person dining, but relented after other other states did so to curb spread of the virus. Several school districts made the decision to close last spring before Mills recommended doing so.

Mills’ stay-at-home order was more permissive than several other states in the region, including Vermont, which barred construction and manufacturing activity while Maine allowed it. The governor’s travel restrictions for out-of-state visitors drew the ire of the struggling hospitality industry, but was never enforced and, according to Mills’ economic director, was meant to be more of an honor system.

Mills has acknowledged that her approach is designed to obtain voluntary compliance, to essentially appeal to Mainers’ sense of decency and community. The tack seemed to work over the summer and early fall when Maine boasted one of the lowest infection rates in the country while still allowing a modest amount of economic activity.

But now COVID-19 cases are exploding. Hospitalizations, already swamping health care systems in midwestern states, are on the rise. So are deaths.

The Maine Center for Disease Control pandemic briefings, scaled back over the summer when the state had seemingly buried the epidemiological curve, have become more frequent — and urgent.

Mills has pleaded with Mainers to stay vigilant against pandemic fatigue.

“The winter surge we were warned about is not just coming, it’s here,” she said during Wednesday’s CDC briefing. “Returning to normal requires us to survive the holidays this year.”

Gov. Janet Mills at a press conference in March.
Credit Nick Woodward / Maine Public

Mills, who was initially successful with carrots, then acknowledged that she’s running out of sticks. When asked whether she was considering another stay-at-home order to control spread of the virus, the governor said the absence of federal assistance would make such a move too devastating for businesses and their employees.

“We could do the things we did back in the spring because we had help from the federal government,” she said. “That help is not there right now.”

Not only is there no federal help on the horizon, opposition to public health mandates could increase. Politicization of the pandemic — even masks — is in full bloom after a vigorous seeding by coordinated reopen protests last spring.

It’s a dynamic that could bleed into what is expected to be a very difficult legislative session. Mills and lawmakers will draft the state’s next two-year budget amid declining revenues, rising unemployment, homelessness and hunger.

Republicans and Democrats have long disagreed on solutions to those problems. And that was before the pandemic made those problems historically and devastatingly acute.

Pandemic session

The 130th Maine Legislature will convene for the first time on Dec. 2 at the Augusta Civic Center when the governor swears in new and returning legislators for two-year terms.

The ceremony and session have been moved from the State House because physical distancing and other pandemic regulations make it impossible for 151 House members and 35 state senators to safely gather in their respective chambers.

The 49,000-square-foot Civic Center is expected to be used repeatedly during the session, although the details and logistics are still under development and likely won’t be settled until the new legislative leaders are officially selected Dec. 2.

But aside from logistics there are a lot of questions about how the session will unfold, how the public will view and participate in it, and whether the traditional deal-making — including in the state’s next two-year budget — will be even more opaque than it typically is.

It’s expected that committee meetings and public hearings will take place at the various hearing rooms at the State House and the adjacent Burton Cross building.

The Cross Building in Augusta in Dec. 2018.
Credit Rebecca Conley / Maine Public file

The outgoing Legislature held several meetings over the summer and largely restricted them to virtual gatherings. Members of the public could watch the meetings, but actual public hearings on the myriad bills that are expected next year will pose a unique challenge because the public is also allowed to comment and interact with elected officials.

That’s going to be tricky.

Many state legislatures restrict the number of bills considered, but the Maine Legislature allows lawmakers to submit as many bills they want during the first session. That’s why there are typically more than a thousand bills considered during the first session. (It’s also why lawmakers have taken up bills to legalize hedgehogs as pets, or name the official state dessert.)

All of the proposals get a public hearing.

That includes the state’s next two-year budget. Not only will it be difficult for lawmakers to draft a new spending plan amid high unemployment and pandemic-restricted economy, it will also be difficult for the press and public to watch them do it.

That’s true every year because budget negotiations are largely done out of public view. Yes, there are public hearings on specific provisions, but the actual deal-making? A lot of that is done behind closed-doors, sometimes with lobbyists representing different interest groups.

It’s not clear how lobbyists and lawmakers will interact this year. In-person access on State House grounds will likely be limited. The State House is currently closed to the public, although legislative staff and a limited number of lawmakers might be allowed, as well as the press.

But lobbyists? Unclear. Not all influence peddling is done in-person under the dome, even during Normal Times. Sometimes it takes place at local restaurants, bars and gathering places — places where operations are currently restricted by the pandemic.

Those restrictions could create the conditions for an explosion of virtual lobbying and deal-making between lawmakers through email, chat, text and everyone’s pandemic favorite, video conferencing.

In other words, the private discussions that can lead to agreements on legislation might occur less frequently at Slates Restaurant in nearby Hallowell or the Senator Inn, and more during a breakout Zoom session.

Alaska joins Maine in adopting RCV

Massachusetts voters aren’t quite ready for the thrill ride of ranked-choice voting, but Alaska voters apparently are.

Advocates for the voting system that Mainers adopted in 2016 and first used in 2018 were celebrating this week after Alaska narrowly passed a ballot measure that allows ranked-choice voting in general election contests. It was a big win for proponents of the system, especially after they got clobbered in Massachusetts by about 10 percentage points.

There are several plausible reasons why RCV failed in the Bay State, but not Maine and Alaska. An advocate for the system argued that the pro-RCV campaign message did not resonate in deeply Democratic Massachusetts because there wasn’t a problem in need of fixing — specifically, third-party candidates who help Republicans get elected.

That wasn’t the case in Maine in 2016, when many voters chose RCV because they were haunted by victories of Republican Gov. Paul LePage, who benefited from having a third-party candidate on the ballot who split the center-left vote with the Democrat. (Ironically, RCV ultimately didn’t solve the so-called spoiler problem in general election gubernatorial contests because Maine’s law court said it violates the Maine Constitution.)

Maine has a long affinity for independent candidates. So does Alaska, which not only has the Alaskan Independence Party, but also recognizes political groups like the Owl Party (who?) and something called the UCES’ Clowns Party (what?)

In fact, Alaskan voters don’t appear all that crazy about party candidates in general. The ballot measure they approved doesn’t just install RCV, it also establishes an open primary system in which the top four candidates advance to the general election regardless of party affiliation.

That might be good news for Republican U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski if she ever finds herself in the same position she confronted in 2010, when she was defeated in the Republican primary by a Tea Party challenger. Murkowski ultimately became the first U.S. senator in 50 years to win a write-in campaign in the general election. But under the new law passed by voters, Murkowski wouldn’t have to resort to a write-in campaign. She would only need to finish among the top four candidates in an open primary to move on to the general election.

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