A sign on a tobacco and beverage store in Sanford urges customers to wear masks. The ordinance passed by the City Council on Thursday will make that mandatory.  Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

The Sanford City Council unanimously passed an emergency ordinance Thursday night that will require people to wear face coverings in all public settings where social distancing is not possible and in stores, restaurants, bars, tasting rooms and lodging operations regardless of their size.

The ordinance will attempt to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the highly contagious virus that has caused four outbreaks in Sanford recently, a worrisome sign of community spread, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Nearly half of the 31 new cases of COVID-19 reported Thursday were in York County.

City Manager Steven Buck, who crafted the ordinance with help from the city attorney, told councilors that Sanford’s ordinance strengthens Gov. Janet Mills’ July 8 executive order by requiring all businesses in the city to post signs letting customers know they must wear a cloth covering over their mouth and nose to gain entrance. It also carries an enforcement provision that could result in fines and possible closure for businesses that fail to comply.

Mills’ executive order states that retail stores with over 50,000 square feet of shopping space, eating establishments, bars, tasting rooms and lodging operations must require face coverings before allowing entry. The state measure gave businesses the power to deny entry or service. Sanford’s ordinance is different in that it will ask all businesses – from a small convenience store, or coffee shop to a large retailer – to enforce a face mask requirement.

Sanford police will be responsible for enforcing the ordinance, which carries a minimum fine of $100 for anyone who fails to comply. A first-time offender will receive a warning before a fine can be levied. The ordinance takes effect Friday will remain in effect for 90 days.

“It’s an important decision, but it was a difficult decision,” Sanford Mayor Tom Cote said after councilors voted 7-0 to adopt the emergency ordinance during a virtual council meeting Thursday night. “Let’s hope we can change the direction of this virus, for the sake of our kids.”

The outbreaks at the Sanford Fire Department, the Calvary Baptist Church, the Lafayette Club and at the city’s American Legion Post caused school officials to postpone the opening of public schools until Monday. Those outbreaks and a major outbreak at the York County Jail in nearby Alfred prompted the state to downgrade school reopening plans in York County from green to yellow.

Cote made an impassioned plea to city residents during Tuesday night’s council meeting in which he called out those in the community who refuse to wear masks because they view it as an infringement of their individual liberties.

“It is time for the community to step up and do the right thing for our kids,” Cote said during Tuesday’s address. “(Students) are mandated to wear a mask, social distance, wash their hands, alter their schedules, and do without many of their social activities. These are the expectations for our students, but as adults, we are not practicing what we preach.”

Barbara Gagne, the manager of a store in Sanford, says her cashier won’t serve customers who refuse to wear masks. On Thursday, she takes a break by her car after asking a group of youngsters to leave the store because they weren’t wearing masks while inside. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

His fellow councilors agreed that the community needs to do more to protect not only its children, but its businesses.

“This is not a political statement. It’s about keeping our friends, family and neighbors safe,” Councilor Lucas Lanigan said. “It’s not going to kill you to put a mask on.”

Councilor Robert Stackpole said there are two sides to the issue of forcing people to wear a mask. “This (ordinance) is the stick side, but it’s not a big stick.”

“This is just something we need to do as a community,” said Stackpole, likening the mask ordinance to common signage that warns customers “no shoes, no shirts, no service.” Stackpole said masks should be added to the signage.

Buck, the city manager, said he spoke with Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine CDC, this week and said that Shah told him the best way to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in Sanford would be requiring that everyone wear masks in public. Cote in his address to the council on Tuesday said, “Go into any store in Sanford and you will see people without masks and not social distancing themselves.”

“Strangely, this is not the case in other communities I visit,” Cote said.

Sanford firefighter and union president Eric Beecher last month at the Sanford Fire Department, site of one of four COVID-19 outbreaks in the city. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Since the pandemic began, Mills has passed multiple executive orders on masks in public places where social distancing is challenging. All businesses that serve the public are supposed to mandate masks and place signs alerting customers to the requirement. A separate order gives businesses the authority to enforce mask-wearing, including denying entry to someone who refuses to comply.

Some Maine municipalities adopted their own mask ordinances earlier in the pandemic, but those have since been effectively replaced by the statewide orders.

Buck, the city manager, said 20 people in Sanford have become infected with COVID-19 because of the outbreaks.

Pastor Todd Bell of the Calvary Baptist Church, who officiated at a wedding in East Millinocket that has been linked to 161 cases and three deaths across the state, has openly encouraged his congregants not to wear masks, and masks are not required at the church’s school, Sanford Christian Academy. Shah said Thursday that the state is investigating the outbreaks at the social clubs to see if mask-wearing and other safety measures were followed.

Arthur Hood of Sanford wears a face covering before entering a store on Thursday. “I think it is a good idea right, now with the outbreaks,” he said in reference to the city’s emergency ordinance requiring masks in public places. Hood said he works in a store where customers often enter with masks, then remove them once inside. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Buck told the City Council that the Maine Department of Education changed York County’s school reopening status in response to the number of active cases per capita being 1.8 percent, nearly four times the state average.

Sanford Superintendent of Schools Matt Nelson decided to postpone the opening of schools by one week, to Monday.

Nelson, in an email to the Press Herald, confirmed Thursday that an elementary school teacher tested positive for COVID-19. Nelson said the teacher did not have contact with students, but Nelson also decided to have elementary students return to school Monday under a hybrid model rather than attending four days of in-person learning.

The council said it has the power to repeal the 90-day emergency ordinance if conditions improve.

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