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Maine attorney general reminds public that those who defy face covering order can be charged criminally

Maine's attorney general and DHHS issued guidance to businesses and other organizations detailing face covering enforcement options.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Attorney General Aaron Frey is urging Mainers and all other people in the state to follow the law and wear face coverings when in public, as mandated by Gov. Janet Mills’ executive orders, in order to help curb the spread of COVID-19. 

With cases rising in Maine and across the country, the widespread use of face coverings is a proven method for reducing the risk of infections and to enable businesses to remain open, according to public health experts.

Voluntary compliance, supported by education, is always the goal. In instances of repeated and purposeful noncompliance that poses a threat to public health, however, Frey said the State has various tools to pursue enforcement.

In an interview with NEWS CENTER Maine on Monday, Frey said people have been doing "a fairly good job" at wearing face coverings when they're around other people, "but the reality is that there are still those businesses and individuals who need this reminder that it is indeed required that folks wear masks when they are in public and are going to be around other people," Frey said.

On Monday, the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) and Maine Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) issued guidance to businesses and other organizations which interact with the public detailing these enforcement options. The guidance states that the governor’s executive orders have the force of law and spells out face covering requirements for individuals and establishments, including which establishments must enforce wearing of face coverings. It also lays out the potential consequences for noncompliance.

RELATED: Gov. Mills: Face coverings must now be worn in public settings regardless of physical distance

Frey said while voluntary compliance gets Maine to a certain point, the spike in positive COVID-19 tests over the last several weeks "indicates we need to double down on making sure that citizens are doing what is a very effective technique in preventing the spread of this virus, which is wearing a face mask, which is required by executive order."

“With Thanksgiving and Black Friday approaching, it is critical that Mainers take necessary steps to protect themselves, their loved ones, and their communities,” Frey said in a release. “Wearing a face covering is a simple step you can take to reduce the spread of COVID-19. In a public setting, wearing a face covering not only makes good sense, but is required and enforceable through licensing actions, by law enforcement, and by the Attorney General.”

The joint OAG-DHHS guidance explains the executive order on face coverings and the requirements and expectations it places on individuals and establishments. These include:

  • The definition of “public settings” as places like stores, restaurants, and government buildings
  • Clarification that all businesses may, and some businesses must enforce face covering usage, and further clarification on which businesses are legally required to do so
  • Recommendations for businesses and other establishments to work with law enforcement in order to protect frontline workers who encounter individuals refusing to comply
  • A reminder that individuals can be charged criminally for not wearing a face covering in a public setting after being warned by a law enforcement officer to do so

RELATED: Mills announces 9 pm curfew for restaurants, other businesses as COVID-19 cases continue to surge

The full guidance, which is embedded above, also includes information on “reasonable accommodations” which can be made for people with disabilities, and notes that beyond these accommodations, during a public health emergency disability laws do not require a business to admit a customer not wearing a face covering.

"If business owners are having some challenges with patrons not abiding by their individual requirement to wear a face mask, we’re not asking that these employees become the enforcer if you will," Frey told NEWS CENTER Maine. "They can ask the folks to leave, they can provide these individuals who refused to wear masks an accommodation like curbside service but if individuals are not abiding by the law then this is for law-enforcement can be involved. The governor, the AG’s office, law enforcement agencies—we are prepared to help businesses enforce compliance with the face mask requirement."

"If individuals are not going to be reasonable and not going to wear face masks like they’re supposed to, we’re asking that these employees deny service, and if that escalates they can always ask law enforcement to come in, and worst-case scenario, even issue a criminal trespass notice for folks who are just not willing to comply with the legal obligations to wear a face mask," Frey explained.

Frey says, by and large, businesses are trying to do the best they can to not only keep their patrons safe but to also make sure they can stay open. 

There are a handful of businesses that have not been compliant. Frey says in those cases, the state has engaged in licensing actions, compliance activity, and litigation to bring the businesses into compliance. 

"But I want to be crystal clear," Frey said, "by and large, businesses across the state have been great partners in helping protect against the spread of COVID-19. And it’s only an outlier, a handful of individual business owners, who just have not seen the merits in complying with the law, but more importantly, doing some very simple things that like requiring facemasks to ensure that their patrons in the public remain COVID-19 free."

Frey explained that the governor is empowered by statute during a time of emergency, such as the ongoing pandemic, to issue reasonable orders to help manage the state through the crisis. 

"This face mask requirement is a minimally intrusive requirement on citizens that helps protect against a very aggressive COVID-19 virus," Frey said. "Wearing face masks, among other measures, is a very simple way to ensure that this virus does not spread. But it is also required and we need to remind people of that particularly as we enter into Thanksgiving, Black Friday, and the commercial and family activities they’re going to be happening over the next month."

“I urge everyone to use common sense and common courtesy,” Frey added. “The objective is to prevent the spread of COVID-19, not to take action against individuals for honest mistakes or minor violations. Citizens are asked to comply with the face covering requirement as part of the shared goals of controlling the virus and protecting ourselves and others.”