A Maine state representative from Chelsea is under fire for using a racist term for COVID-19 and downplaying the disease’s seriousness in an email to an Asian-American resident.

Republican Rep. Michael Lemelin, who represents the Augusta-area towns of Chelsea, Jefferson, Nobleboro and Whitefield, called COVID-19 the “China virus” in an email to a Windham resident concerned about his signature on a letter calling on state officials to ease restrictions on full-time school.

House Speaker Ryan Fecteau last week called Lemelin’s use of “China virus” “a racist trope” that was “offensive and wrong,” but said it wasn’t his responsibility to discipline Lemelin.

Krista Gerrity, a sales consultant who lives in Windham, emailed her concerns to several dozen lawmakers who signed a letter that asks the Maine Department of Education and Maine CDC to allow full-time school without 3 feet of physical distancing, as is now required. Fifty-one lawmakers, mostly Republicans, signed the letter written by State Rep. Nathan Carlow, R-Buxton, which says schools can’t reach full capacity under the current distancing mandate.

Rep. Michael Lemelin

Carlow, who also sits on the board of directors for SAD 6, which includes schools in Buxton, Hollis, Limington and Standish, voted in favor of a resolution from the board calling on state officials to ease the restriction, over objections from some students and staff at a board meeting last week.

Responses to Gerrity from the letter signers have been trickling in since early April. When Lemelin’s arrived, Gerrity said she was stunned.

In a copy of Lemelin’s April 3 email, shared by Gerrity and first reported by News Center Maine, the legislator accused the CDC of “instilling fear” of the “China virus,” as he called the novel coronavirus, which causes the disease COVID-19.

“In 2019, before the China virus hit, nearly 1/4 of Erskine academy was out sick from a virus, and not one person showed any concern,” Lemelin wrote.

“People need to stop running to the doctor and getting tested at the first sign of illness,” he continued. “We did not do this in 2018 or 2019.”

“I was like, ‘Wait, what? Am I reading this right?’ ” Gerrity said in an interview this weekend, recalling her initial reaction. “Oh my goodness.”

Lemelin serves on the planning board for the Augusta-area town of Chelsea, and is also a member of the RSU 12 School Board, according to his legislative website. In his email, he said the district had, during the pandemic, temporarily closed because of a possible COVID-19 case. “But we should not have,” he added.

“If parents stop using schools as daycare centers and keep their sick children home, outbreaks would not occur. This has always been our family policy,” he said.

Rep. Michael Lemelin, R-Chelsea, wearing a rain hood and rubber gloves, chats with Rep. Heidi Sampson, R-Alfred, before a legislative session in early March at the Augusta Civic Center. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

Speaker Fecteau chastised Lemelin in an emailed statement Sunday, but said it was voters’ responsibility to hold the representative accountable.

“I want to be clear, using the term ‘China Virus’ is a racist trope,” said Fecteau, a Democrat from Biddeford. “In light of the violence Asian Americans have experienced in this country, violence that has been heightened as a result of people in leadership using this kind of harmful language, this is offensive and wrong. It is beneath the office Rep. Lemelin holds.”

On potentially disciplining Lemelin, Fecteau said, “I felt it was important to speak out against this use of harmful language by a Representative. Ultimately, the constituents in Representative Lemelin’s district are charged with holding him accountable for his words and actions. I hope that Representative Lemelin will see how his words hurt Ms. Gerrity and could negatively impact AAPI Mainers across the state.”

In an email Sunday, Lemelin said his term for coronavirus referred to Wuhan, China, where the first major outbreak occurred. He denied that he had understated the seriousness of the pandemic.

“The virus is from Wuhan, China,” he said in a short response. “If you look at my email there is no way to conclude that I am downplaying the virus.”

The use of “China virus” and similar terms, some spread by former President Donald Trump, stigmatize people by associating a disease with ethnicity and race. A recent study published in the American Journal of Public Health indicates that Trump’s first use of “Chinese virus” in March 2020 was associated with a rise in anti-Asian social media posts and hate crimes.

About a month before that, in February 2020, the World Health Organization urged the public not to associate the disease with specific people or places, writing, “Don’t attach locations or ethnicity to the disease, this is not a ‘Wuhan Virus,’ ‘Chinese Virus’ or ‘Asian Virus.’ ”

Gerrity said she had not heard from Lemelin since she raised concerns about his language and the inaccurate medical information in his email. The use of “China virus” to refer to COVID-19 evokes a rising tide of anti-Asian sentiment that has led to violence across the United States, and for Gerrity it brings back memories of racism she and her two children have endured in Maine.

Gerrity’s children recently have endured racist taunts at school, and before the pandemic forced her to stay inside, she faced racism in public, including one altercation at a grocery store that left her in tears.

“Unfortunately, my kids have had to deal with that in the past few months,” she said. “People don’t really understand how words can be traumatizing.”

A spokesman for the Maine Legislature’s Republican caucus did not respond to questions about Lemelin over the weekend.

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