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Shoppers at Bridgton Books at 140 Main St. comply Friday with state mask regulations meant to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Robert F. Bukaty/AP

On Sunday, news crews in vans were seen scouting out various Hannaford stores in the southern part of Maine.

A few police officers were there, as well. All of them were waiting for members of the Facebook group Mainers Against Mask Mandates to appear for some kind of public protest. 

But the group never showed. 

Meanwhile, at about the same time, a Twitter user with the moniker “Bad Mainers” began to target members of the anti-mandate group, claiming he was out to protect travelers from “the worst of our citizens spreading COVID misinformation.” 

For the 1,500 members of Mainers Against Mask Mandates, it was a strange weekend, but that is nothing new. As far as the group’s members are concerned, they have been misunderstood from the start. 

Although they are often derided as being violently opposed to the use of face masks, members of the group say that is a gross mischaracterization. 

“We’re not against the masks,” said Richard Coffron, the group’s unofficial spokesman. “We’re against mask mandates.” 

Members of the group passionately believe — for a variety of reasons — that nobody should be forced to wear a mask. They are also opposed to the public shaming and harassment of those who go maskless, citizen enforcement the group feels has been encouraged by the words and policies of Gov. Janet Mills. 

“They dox, harass, follow, take pictures of shoppers and individuals not wearing masks,” Coffron says. “We wanted to shine light that the state has set us up for a dangerous situation in the future, especially as they become more emboldened.

“Have you been watching what has been going on in Europe, Canada, Australia in the past 10 days? They are protesting massively against masks and lockdowns. When America goes into its new lockdowns, we might see riots like this. And unlike Europe, our situation will be right versus left, rather than against the state.” 

Over the weekend, nearly two dozen members of the group approached the Sun Journal to state their cases and explain why they believe nobody should be forced to wear a mask. 

“I’ve been against the mask mandates from the beginning,” wrote Gina Troiano of Gray, “because I think at worst, they cause more harm than good, and at best, it gives people a false sense of security.

Troiana continued: “People I know have talked about their face breaking out, sore throats and infections, sinus infections, pain in their lungs, pleurisy, sore skin around their eyes and eye irritation. Between the mental, and physical problems with masks and people experiencing negativity and bullying, and being called murderers, masks seem to be causing a lot of problems.

“They’re mandating masks, but neglecting all of the health risks, mental and physically, and the hate and division they’re causing. A lot of people won’t go anywhere because they are afraid of being approached for not wearing a mask. Then there are people who think they have the right to tell people to wear a mask.” 

Since July, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention has been calling on Americans to use face coverings when in public, saying the latest science showed doing so could reduce the spread of COVID-19.

In following months, several states began issuing mandates requiring people to wear masks at public places. By mid-November, 36 states had issued such mandates.

In early November in Maine, Mills issued an executive order mandating face masks in public settings, regardless of physical distance from other people. The move was immediately the focus of controversy. Some saw the mandate as a wise choice as COVID-19 cases continued to rise in the state. Others saw it as excessive and unnecessary, and debates began to rage.

Late last week, word began to circulate that members of Mainers Against Mask Mandates were planning to go public with their gripes, gathering sans masks at stores across the state to get out their message.

But those rumors were false. There was never such a plan, according to the group. Its members’ main goal is to raise awareness about what they see as encroachments on individual freedoms. 

“We see a mask mandate as symbolic of the growing suppression of free speech and individual rights that has resulted from the COVID-19 crisis,” according to the group’s Facebook page, “and we are focusing on this one issue as a way to fight back against government overreach.” 

The group was launched by two women: Karley Estes, a parent from Paris, and Gail Geraghty, a retired newspaper reporter from Norway. Both women have been outspoken critics of the local and national response to the pandemic. 

“Our vision was to offer a platform of free speech, focused on educating each other so we’re aware of the mandate’s impact on our legal, health and individual rights as citizens,” Geraghty says. “And, yes, to rant. But we have tried to keep it to a higher standard than the stupid memes and rants you see everywhere else.” 

She added, “We’ve been targeted by mask fanatics every time we try to share our message to the general public, and it’s been vicious.” 

Mainers Against Mask Mandates is a mix of men and women, although there seem to be more of the latter. Most are average people, with families and jobs, and many are wary of going public with their concerns. They fear backlash from the public.

The group’s members insist they are not against masks in a sweeping way, as they are often portrayed.

“I’m not anti-mask, I’m anti-mandate,” wrote group member Julie Smith. “If someone feels comfortable wearing a mask then they should do that. No one is trying to stop them from wearing one. We’re all adults here. We know how to practice safe hygiene and social distancing if/when necessary. There is no need for these extreme measures such as lockdowns and mask mandates.”

In spite of their fears about speaking out, several members of the group agreed to talk to a reporter because they felt the dangers of what they view as overly zealous government mandates outweigh the risk of public alienation.  

What they really want, group members said, is freedom of choice so all people can base their decisions — to wear or not wear a mask — on their personal assessments. 

“Masks, for many people, come with unintended consequences,” said Aimee Maheux, an educator and mother from Sabattus. “Masks can have negative effects on one’s mental, emotional, social, spiritual and physical health. Like with everything in life, we must weigh the negative and the positive.

“For my family, the only people for whom I am responsible, masks are causing more harm than good. And where there is risk, there MUST be choice! Having a mask mandate takes away my body autonomy. It takes away my right to choose what is best for myself and my family. It takes away my rights, liberties and freedoms. Do what’s best for your family and do not take away my right to do what’s best for mine.” 

Several members of the group referred to nursing homes and other facilities that have followed every suggestion for combating COVID-19, yet still have outbreaks. 

Betsy Mancine of Wilton has two parents in a long-term care facility. The facility, she said, has been fastidious about following the rules, particularly those pertaining to the use of face coverings. Now, however, the number of COVID-19 cases there is rising by the day. 

“If masks worked, it wouldn’t be spreading through that facility like wildfire,” Mancine wrote. “Masks clearly don’t work. People uses them as the holy grail of hope and it’s being shoved down our throats as the saving grace.” 

Proponents of wearing protective masks say that logic runs counter to research by universities and the government, which shows masks, when used properly, reduce transmission of the the coronavirus, and that transmission is higher by percent where masks are not mandated.

Many members of Mainers Against Mask Mandates say they have lost faith in medical and government leaders.

“We have flattened the curve,” says Lionel Roy, of St. David, “and eight months have passed and it appears we are worse off than we were when all this started.” 

Some of the group’s members said Mills’ mask mandates exceeded CDC guidelines, which state masks should be worn if 6 feet of social distancing is not possible. 

Mills, they said, is overstating the dangers of COVID-19.

“The propaganda and fear that is being poured out is shameful,” wrote Sarah Jane of Winthrop. “This is not a ‘deadly and dangerous’ disease as she spouted last week. Isolating people and destroying livelihoods is far more dangerous than a virus that has over a 99% recovery rate, and that is fact. All you have to do is the math.”

Jane continued: “This data does not support lockdowns, fear mongering or isolation. Protect the vulnerable. Let the healthy go out and live. If you tell me masks do work, then open everything up 100 percent — no restrictions —and I will gladly put one on.” 

As of Tuesday, there had been 166 deaths in Maine related to COVID-19. They contributed to the 229,327 deaths nationally and estimated 1.3 million worldwide. Unknown was the number of cases of survivors suffering long-term or permanent damage because of the virus.

“As a group, we are hoping to demand a second choice,” Coffron said. “If there is no other alternative, it becomes authoritarianism.” 

The Sun Journal has also heard from a handful of people who cannot wear masks due to health maladies, including Rebecca Rochelle of Winthrop, who has had a series of surgeries on her sinuses and who has trouble breathing if her face is covered. 

Rochelle said she rarely goes out. The trauma of the ensuing attacks — because she is maskless — is too much to bear. 

“I get harassed, threatened, assaulted, insulted and more every time I go to the grocery store,” Rochelle said.

Dexter Parquette of Lewiston said he has medical issues that make wearing a mask difficult. He said he might have to go out of state to have surgery on his shoulder because, due to hospital policy, Parquette’s local doctor is unable to treat him if Parquette is not wearing a mask. 

“I wonder what happened to doctors acting in their patient’s best interest, not everybody else’s,” Parquette said. “I am treated like a leper everywhere I go without a mask — have been screamed at, threatened, had my first death threat the other day. …” 

“I had renal cell carcinoma last year and I personally have two autoimmune issues and, for the most part, don’t wear a mask,” wrote Carley Dodge of Norway. “I know many that do because they fear the backlash. We as country love each other and our neighbors. But the vast majority need to get back to living.”

These are some of the people Mainers Against Mask Mandates seeks to protect. The group’s members said they prefer to provide this protection without hostility and vitriol, which makes it all the more frustrating when people visit their Facebook page to declare the group “killers” or to deem them “absolute pond scum,” as the Twitter user Bad Mainers did over the weekend. 

“We are not rude, nor are we violent,” said Ginia Choiniere of Corinth. “We don’t aim to offend or to cause anyone any harm, and we certainly have zero desire to kill anyone. We just want to maintain our right as free citizens to not do something that we feel is detrimental to ourselves, or our families.” 

Above all, the group’s members said they fear disagreements over the importance of wearing masks are leading to a greater divide among Mainers, who are already at one another over other issues.  

“I understand the fear from folks who are vulnerable, but this mask mandate is creating a deep divide and some very palpable anger from both sides,” said Sherri McKusick Lupo, a member of Mainers Against Mask Mandates. “There has to be a better way than just forcing people to wear a mask.”

Troiano agreed, saying: “People have very strong feelings about the mask mandates, on both sides. They’re being fueled by never-ending restrictions and fear tactics blaming people for the spread of a virus.

“The fear, guilt, shame, anger and burden people are carrying around — to me, it seems criminal to allow this to continue.”

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