Portland officials are preparing to declare an end to the city’s state of emergency – a move that could lead local businesses to stop paying hazard wages to some employees.

Officials also plan to find another way to keep certain streets closed for outdoor restaurant dining even after the pandemic emergency is officially over.

Gov. Janet Mills announced last week that she would lift the statewide state of emergency on June 30. The emergency declaration allowed the governor to  take executive actions and restrict private and public activities to protect public health and safety during the coronavirus pandemic.

Portland’s emergency declaration, originally adopted in March 2020, allowed the city manager to impose curfews on bars and issue broad stay-at-home orders, among other things, intended to protect public health. Recent actions have been used primarily to close streets to allow restaurants to expand outdoor dining options, deemed to be safer during the pandemic than indoor dining.

Portland’s City Council recently extended its emergency order to November to allow for extended street closings through the summer and into the fall.

But with the state’s order set to be lifted, Portland’s emergency declaration is potentially keeping some city employers from eliminating so-called hazard wages.

Those employers have been paying minimum wage workers more than $18 an hour since late last year because of a citizen initiative passed by voters in November. The initiative effectively raises the minimum wage by 50 percent for employees required to report to workplaces in the city during declared state or city emergencies.

The hazard pay minimum is currently $18.23 an hour, compared to the statewide $12.15 minimum wage. Some of the businesses that have paid the higher wages have added surcharges to their regular prices to cover the costs.

Other employers have not paid the higher wage, however, citing a legal dispute over whether the requirement has actually taken effect.

The city believes the requirement does not take effect until 2022 because of the way the initiative was written, while proponents said they intended for the provision to take effect immediately. The city’s position was upheld in Superior Court, but an appeal is pending before the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.

City Manager Jon Jennings said staff is preparing an order for the City Council to consider in July to end the city’s state of emergency. He said staff is preparing some separate ordinance amendments that would maintain the street closures and outdoor dining, while ending the emergency.

“The plan is to keep the Portland emergency order in place for now in order to continue outdoor dining options for businesses, but staff will be bringing forward ordinance amendment recommendations to the council that will allow outdoor dining and street closures to continue while ending the city emergency order,” Jennings said.

It’s unclear how businesses will react to the lifting of the emergency, and whether minimum wages will return to lower rate and how soon.

Hannaford is an example of an employer that has paid the hazard wage. A spokesman for Hannaford said the company had no additional information about the company’s plans.

“We really don’t have any additional information to provide to you,” spokesman Eric Blom said. “With the payroll week beginning November 29, Hannaford began a temporary pay increase for any associate at our two Portland stores whose base rate of pay is less than $18 an hour.  That temporary increase continues to be in place, and we don’t have any announcements to make around that.”

The end of the emergency orders also means other potential changes for government business. The statewide order, for example, allowed remote participation in public meetings. A legislative proposal that would allow communities to continue allowing the public to participate in public meetings remotely was voted on by the Judiciary Committee on June 7 with a recommendation of ought to pass as amended. It had not been reported out of committee as of Monday.

Municipal officials say they have an additional 30 days to transition from pandemic-related precautious, such as remote city meetings. And city officials in Portland say they are making plans to resume in-person meetings for elected officials and staff, though the public may be required to observe and participate remotely, at least for July. And they’re also looking to expand in-person services at City Hall in August.

“City Hall is currently open for limited services, some by appointment and some for walk-in,” Portland spokesperson Jessica Grondin said. “We are working on a plan now that would open up the building for more services starting August 2. That plan will be finalized soon and communicated to the public. We are also working on a plan to have the July 19 council meeting in-person for councilors and some staff, but the public would attend via zoom. We are still working out all of the technical requirements to make this happen.”

It’s unclear when Portland will fully return to in-person meetings, especially if the state law is changed to allow them. City officials offered their support to the state legislation that would continue allowing remote participation at public meetings.

Several other communities are making plans to repeal their emergency orders in response to the state’s announcement, if they hadn’t already.

Lewiston announced last Thursday that it was lifting its emergency order, while Auburn already had lifted its emergency declaration, according to the Sun Journal.

South Portland currently has an active emergency declaration, but City Manager Scott Morelli said he will speak with the mayor about rescinding the local emergency order in accordance with the state’s. He said the council could consider that request next week.

Morelli said the council will likely continue meeting remotely through July, since municipalities have 30 days to wind down pandemic measures.

Biddeford still has an emergency declaration in effect, but City Manager James Bennett said staff is planning on recommending lifting it “to be in harmony with the state.” 

The town has offered in-person services at City Hall since May 24 and began hosting hybrid meetings, with in-person attendance, at the beginning of June, according to the town website.

Bangor’s emergency declaration will sunset seven days after the statewide emergency ends June 30, according to City Manager Cathy Conlow. City officials there are also working on a way to extend rules allowing restaurants to use parking spaces as outdoor seating and allowing residents to attend city meetings remotely.

“Staff had already been working on ordinance language to address outdoor seating in the public right of way, for next year and beyond,” she said. “As for use of on-line technology for ‘hybrid or on-line’ meetings, I am not entirely sure how we will resolve that. The council has been happy with the use of ‘hybrid’ technology for meetings but we don’t think it was addressed by the Legislature this year.”

Conlow said members of the public have the option of attending meetings in-person or online.

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