Residents appeared to be split at a Feb. 2 City Council meeting about the rights of Sunday protesters demonstrating against masks and other state coronavirus mandates on Resistance Corner, the intersection of High and Main streets.

Some residents were concerned that the protesters, most of whom do not wear masks while demonstrating, are putting other people walking downtown at risk of contracting the virus and are harassing them. Others said they have made it a point to avoid downtown during the demonstrations, which could negatively impact businesses in the area.

Meredith Bruskin of Swanville said she wants to see more leadership from the council regarding the safety of the protests. She demonstrates with the Black Lives Matter protesters, who she said were “bullied” off Resistance Corner, resulting in a move to Post Office Square. She respects everybody’s right to demonstrate, she said, but noted that the virus is a public health issue.

“It’s the common good I’m asking us to look at,” she said.

Belfast resident Glen Montgomery said the anti-mask group has been more aggressive than other demonstrators.

Other residents, like Edward Moffitt, do not agree with the obscenities sometimes displayed at the protests, but said it is a product of frustrated people feeling their rights are being taken away. He thinks Belfast used to be a tight-knit community, but this issue has divided it.

“Don’t get rid of them, because that means everyone needs to go, if they’re going to be taken off the street at that location.”

Kayleigh Stanley is the protest organizer. She made clear at the council meeting that the demonstrators have no intention of gathering anywhere else in Belfast and asserted that the Police Department had no power to require protesters to wear masks because a mandate is not a law.

Police Chief Gerry Lincoln said later in the meeting that his department has been advised by the state to serve as educators to the community about the mandates rather than taking action against people not adhering to them.

Stanley said the protesters are pleasant with people walking by until they are confronted or intimidated. And the incident where a man was pushed into traffic by a demonstrator during one of the protests resulted in no charges being filed because it was self-defense, she said. Lincoln did not comment on the incident because there were no summonses or arrests made.

Lincoln said he had asked the public to report incidents of aggression to the department when they happen. Most complaints come in after the demonstrations, so it is hard to investigate them. There has been an increased police presence downtown because of the complaints, but his officers have seen very few incidents where they needed to intervene.

Belfast resident Valerie Tate suggested that the city hold a public discussion that brings people from the anti-mask protests and residents concerned about them together to share their experiences and concerns about the mandates to expand understanding between the opposing sides.

City Manager Erin Herbig drafted a letter stating that the city respects freedoms under the First Amendment, but it will not stand for rude behavior, ridicule or a lack of respect. It calls for civility, which helps people consider different perspectives and allows them to work together.

Councilor Neal Harkness thinks not wearing a mask while standing on a street corner where people are frequently passing by during a pandemic is an act of aggression, he said.

He said he does not like the obscenities or the use of a bullhorn during the protests, but there is nothing the city can do about those issues. He wants people to feel safe downtown during the demonstrations.

Councilor Mike Hurley questioned whether the use of a bullhorn is protected under the First Amendment. He was glad to see that the sign with obscene language on it has not been displayed recently and wondered if a compromise could be reached so the bullhorn was no longer used.

He does not want to shut the protests down and notes that Belfast has a long history of demonstrations going back to the first Gulf War, he said. He thinks the city has taken a light hand in regulating the protests and should not push the idea of requiring the demonstrators to wear masks.

Mayor Eric Sanders thanked everyone at the meeting for remaining civil. “The chief, the council and the citizens are all going through this dance together,” he said. “… And I experienced a hell of a lot of good civility tonight on every end of the candle here.”