Eli Powers, right, puts his mask on before entering Home Depot in Auburn on Thursday morning with his mother, Cindy, left and brother, Niko. The trio came from Otisfield to return an item to the store. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

AUBURN — Despite a brand new executive order, multiple signs telling customers they must wear face coverings and an employee standing outside checking for compliance, many Walmart shoppers were maskless Thursday afternoon. 

Nancy Schaeffer of Livermore Falls says she was happy to wear a mask and thinks it’s everyone’s responsibility to do the same, as she heads into Home Depot on Thursday morning in Auburn. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

One indignant shopper tried to push past the greeter without a face covering. The greeter offered him a Walmart-provided mask but he refused. The greeter offered to call a manager to explain the policy, to which the man said he had a medical condition and made his way into the store. 

Walmart and many other businesses in Lewiston and Auburn heightened their COVID-19 safety measures Thursday following the governor’s executive order Wednesday requiring “large retail businesses, restaurants, outdoor bars, tasting rooms and lodging establishments,” as well as parks and campgrounds, to enforce mandatory face coverings for customers in indoor public places and outside where physical distancing is impractical. 

“I think it’s a wonderful thing honestly. We’re not really taking this seriously as a country. Everywhere else that has done way harsher restrictions, they’re getting over it right now,” said Will Thompson, a Walmart customer. “The existence of COVID is like a political opinion and I think that’s really silly. I just think that a lot of people are trying to downplay it, but obviously this is a real thing. It’s all around the world and it’s killing a ton of people.”

The coastal counties of Cumberland, Hancock, Knox, Lincoln, Sagadahoc, Waldo and York, along with the larger inland cities of Auburn, Augusta, Bangor, Brewer and Lewiston, were included in the governor’s executive order. Those regions and cities are more populated and typically see an influx of people during the summer months. 

To enforce the order, the governor said retailers can refuse service to a customer and may contact law enforcement or any government agency responsible for regulating licenses, permits or occupancy of the establishments listed in the executive order.

The new order stands to strengthen similar mandates issued in late April and May, but many business owners have expressed frustration when it comes to enforcing these policies. In Walmart’s case Thursday, a number of customers took off their masks after walking through the front entrance. 

Home Depot offers free masks and other safety measures for customers entering the store Thursday in Auburn, but at that time was not enforcing the governor’s executive order requiring customers to wear face coverings. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

At Home Depot in Auburn on Thursday, signs requiring face coverings were posted, along with free masks and hand sanitizer on a table outside the entrance. No employees were stationed outside to enforce the policy and many customers inside were not wearing face coverings. 

“It’s a free country, you should have your own choice, so if you wanna wear one, go ahead. If you don’t want to wear one you shouldn’t have to. But everybody feels the same way. It’s hurting a lot of businesses,” said maskless customer Rene Ouellette. “I wear my mask when I go to church because I want to go to church. It’s a free country. There are a lot of rules in this free country.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recent studies have suggested that COVID-19 can be spread by people who have the virus but do not show symptoms. Health experts from the CDC and World Health Organization say wearing a mask can help prevent the spread of the virus. 

Cindy Powers, a Home Depot customer and mother of two boys, said Thursday she felt good about the executive order and wished more communities would implement similar measures. 

“I thought about it this morning and about which stores probably have it, because I saw Auburn was part of it. We live out in Otisfield and it’s not mandated, and at Walmart I’m always kind of surprised that people show up still without wearing a mask,” said Powers. “We agree that it’s definitely a way to keep from spreading the disease and hopefully open things up a lot sooner than without them. I’ve been reading about it and I’m glad that she’s (Gov. Janet Mills) taking a stance to make businesses enforce it.”

In an effort to accommodate shoppers who don’t want to or can’t wear masks for health reasons, many retailers offer curbside service.

Rene Ouellette of Canton says he doesn’t think people should be ordered to wear a face covering and did not put one on as he went into Home Depot on Thursday morning in Auburn. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

A recent study published by Health Affairs, a peer-reviewed health care journal, compared growth rates of COVID-19 before and after masks were mandated in 15 states. It found the requirements slowed daily growth rates; after five days the growth rate slowed by about 1 percentage point and after three weeks the daily growth rate slowed by 2 percentage points. 

Davinci’s Eatery in Lewiston has required its employees to wear face masks and gloves since April 27. Signs requiring customers to wear face coverings were posted outside the restaurant. 

“I think they’re important because it makes our customers feel more safe,” said Madeline Timberlake, a waitress. “A lot of customers have commented on the fact that they like the precautions that we’re taking.” 

Another waitress, Katire Farr said, “There’s definitely a handful of people that have made an issue of it, but for the most part everyone’s been really respectful. Our customers like it here, so they want to be able to come, and so they’ll follow the rules for the garlic knot.” 

Although many businesses on Thursday in the Lewiston-Auburn area appeared to be taking the executive order seriously, some were not aware of or were ignoring the order. 

One Lewiston pizza establishment was not requiring its customers or its employees to wear masks. No employee or customer in the eatery was wearing a mask at the time the Sun Journal stopped in. The owner said he was not aware of the executive order. 

Davinci’s Eatery server Madeline Timberlake carries garlic knots to customers dining in the eatery’s outdoor area Thursday in Lewiston. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Only one of the six customers in a popular beverage and redemption center store in Lewiston on Thursday had a face covering on, while its three employees had masks around their necks but not on their faces.

The executive order encourages those who witness violations of the order to file a report with the state’s Department of Economic and Community Development.

“It is important that we wear face coverings as people begin to interact more and more,” Mills said in a statement released with the order. “Doing so can slow the spread of COVID-19, protect the health and safety of those around us, support businesses and allow us to safely reopen our economy.”

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