The city of Portland issued an order Tuesday for all residents to stay at home starting Wednesday evening, effectively shutting down all businesses that do not provide essential goods or services.

City Manager Jon Jennings also said Tuesday that two staff members in the city’s General Assistance office and a second city police officer have tested positive for coronavirus, bringing the total number of infected staff members to five. A city health care worker and police officer had previously tested positive.

Portland’s order is similar to one announced Tuesday by Gov. Janet Mills, although it affects additional business activities in the city. The statewide order allows non-public facing businesses to continue operating under conditions to ensure workers can keep at least 6 feet from each other. Portland is calling for nonessential businesses to shut down workspaces and operate only if they can do so remotely, although it also allows exceptions.

The emergency order by Jon Jennings starts at 5 p.m. Wednesday and lasts for five days, until Monday, when the City Council will have a chance to debate whether to extend it.

“All businesses with a facility in the city of Portland that do not provide COVID-19 essential services shall close their physical work spaces and facilities (brick-and-mortar premises) to workers, customers, and the public,” the order says.

Nonessential businesses must operate remotely. Business owners and employees are still permitted inside offices and stores to conduct essential transactions such as completing payroll, depositing checks, processing mail and paying vendors, but they must not be open to the public as usual, and anyone inside a business is asked to maintain proper social distancing practices.

Portland Mayor Kate Snyder speaks at a news conference Tuesday as City Manager Jon Jennings looks on. She issued a statement saying “this is a person-to-person virus that requires vigilant social distancing in order to stem the spread.” Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“These have been some of the most difficult decisions I’ve had to make in my life,” Jennings said during an afternoon news conference. “Having grown up in a family with a single mom, we lived paycheck to paycheck. I know how difficult this time is for families, for individuals.”

Churches, temples, mosques and other religious organizations with physical locations in Portland may continue to stay open as long as their members follow the statewide guidance prohibiting gatherings of more than 10 people and requiring individuals to remain 6 feet away from others whenever possible. Many houses of worship have already shifted to remote, digital services.

Dog-walking and outdoor exercise are still permitted, although the city is urging people to stay away from municipal playgrounds to avoid gatherings of people.

Grocery stores, restaurants doing carry-out, pharmacies, and health care facilities can remain open, and residents are still permitted to travel to and from those locations. There is also no general prohibition against driving or moving within the city. Jennings said the city also would temporarily relax requirements that residents use the purple trash bags to dispose of household waste.

But other businesses will be forced to close up shop, potentially putting thousands of additional people out of work.

Violations of the order are punishable by a fine of up to $500 per person or business for each infraction.

“I was compelled to take this action based on the data we have related to the number of positive COVID-19 cases in southern Maine,” Jennings said.

Congress Street, in the heart of downtown Portland, is nearly empty Tuesday evening. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“This was not an easy decision to make given the impacts it will further have on our economy, but my hope in doing this stay-at-home order now is that if we restrict as many activities as possible for a short time, then we can re-emerge from this crisis sooner. It is essential for anyone living in Cumberland or York counties to take this very seriously. We can flatten the curve in southern Maine if we act now.”

As of Tuesday, Maine had 118 confirmed coronavirus cases out of 3,014 people tested.

Portland Mayor Kate Snyder emphasized that most of the confirmed virus cases – 90 of the 118 – are in the southern part of the state, necessitating the city’s move to further restrict activity. She also said the City Council has been supportive of the decision as a way of reducing the risk of further community transmission.

“We know this is a person-to-person virus that requires vigilant social distancing in order to stem the spread,” Snyder said in the statement. “Portland’s early actions laid the base for today’s additional, aggressively cautious measures.”

Portland City Manager Jon Jennings speaks at Tuesday’s news conference. He and Mayor Kate Snyder announced a stay-at-home order that starts at 5 p.m. Wednesday and lasts for five days. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Portland issued the state’s first emergency order to restrict operations of bars and dine-in restaurants last week on the eve of St. Patrick’s Day. That order was superseded days later by a statewide order by the governor.

During the afternoon news conference, Jennings also hinted at more far-reaching effects of the disruption to national and local economies, especially now that more businesses will have to close. City revenue from taxes, fees and permitting payments have plummeted, and a budget proposal that two weeks ago included a 1.6 percentage increase will be scrapped. The ultimate impact on Portland’s taxpayers and city services is unknown.

Jennings said he will have to balance the interests of maintaining city services with the potentially dire financial consequences the coronavirus may have on families and property owners who face an already high tax burden.

“It is a difficult set of circumstances to think about,” Jennings said. “Twelve days ago I was very, very happy with the budget we as staff had put together and were going to present to the council. But now, we have no idea. But it doesn’t mean that the city … will look at a large tax increase. It’s just not in the cards for people, particularly at this time.”

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