Portland’s City Council will discuss whether to require that masks be worn citywide in public indoor settings to slow the spread of the surging COVID-19 delta variant.

If enacted, Portland likely would become the first municipality in the state to enact a local mask-wearing requirement since the statewide mandate was dropped in June.

Portland City Councilor Andrew Zarro

City Councilor Andrew Zarro requested a workshop to discuss a possible mandate, saying he has heard from “many business owners and workers” who are worried about a surge in COVID-19 cases stemming from the highly transmissible delta variant. Small-business owners and workers are requesting a local mask mandate, he said.

The council is scheduled to discuss the idea in a workshop Sept. 8.

In just the past two weeks, the delta variant has spread through the state, pushing Maine case numbers up and filling hospital intensive care units with infected patients, the vast majority of whom are unvaccinated.

“The landscape has obviously changed a bit more than expected since the last time we met,” Zarro said during the council meeting Monday night. “As many of you know the delta variant of COVID-19 is circulating in the United States and here in Maine.”

Zarro said he’d like the council to hear directly from the city’s Health and Human Services Department, Corporation Counsel’s office and the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention about how the city’s transmission rate has fluctuated with the introduction of the delta variant. The variant spreads much more easily and can be transmitted by people who are fully vaccinated, although vaccinated people remain less likely to be infected by the delta variant and even less likely to experience severe symptoms or be hospitalized.

Corporation Counsel Danielle West said she needs to do more research before responding to questions about a local mask mandate.

City Manager Jon Jennings said Wednesday that the council would likely have to amend its current emergency proclamation to add a mask requirement. But he was concerned about city enforcement of such a mandate.

“I do think it is impossible for city staff to enforce a mask mandate if the council decides to go in this direction,” Jennings said. “What we have seen are businesses making those decisions on their own and enforcing a masking policy at their establishment.”

Some proponents say such a mandate – even if not enforced by the city – would help businesses enact and enforce their own mask-wearing policies.

Briana Volk, co-owner of the Portland Hunt + Alpine Club, has been calling for a city or state mask-wearing mandate for indoor public spaces since early August. The bar requires proof of vaccination to dine indoors and mask-wearing indoors when not eating or drinking. Volk said she has emailed councilors about enacting a citywide mask mandate for all indoor spaces, in addition to posting about it on social media.

“I wish @CityPortland and/or @GovJanetMills would put in both a mask mandate for indoors and require proof of vaccination to eat/drink indoors,” Volk tweeted on Aug. 14. “Let’s take care of our workers during one of the worst points of this pandemic. I’m tired of feeling so alone as a small business owner.”

Volk said in an interview Tuesday that her restaurant received backlash on social media when it announced its new policy, but business has remained strong and customers are thankful for the requirement.

Volk said she would not expect the city to enforce the mandate by imposing fines, but having one on the books would give cover to local businesses interested in adopting mask-wearing rules. And it would better protect workers, who have little say in workplace safety.

“I have spoken to many business owners want to put in a mask mandate, but they’re worried about the backlash they have seen Hunt get and other places like Little Giant get,” she said. “To have the city do it, it kind of takes that weight off of businesses.”

Other businesses, including concert venues such as the State Theatre and the Portland House of Music, are requiring proof of vaccination or a timely negative COVID-19 test to gain admittance.

The Cotton Garden, a women’s clothing store on Exchange Street, has required customers to wear masks in the store since the pandemic started.

Manager Beth Carberry said the store provides paper masks for people without them. Most customers appreciate the policy, she said, although some walk out.

Despite her positive experience, Carberry said, she “absolutely” supports a city mandate.

“That way it’s not just me being conservative,” she said. “But then again, that is me being a little lame and sort of passing the buck to the city. But I think if it was mandated by the city, it would make it easier on me.”

Currently, the Maine CDC recommends that fully vaccinated individuals in counties with substantial or high transmission rates of COVID-19 wear masks indoors. That list of counties changes daily.

Based on the latest data, only Androscoggin and Sagadahoc counties have moderate levels of transmission. Cumberland, Oxford, Kennebec, Lincoln, Knox, Waldo, Hancock and Washington counties are all seeing substantial levels of transmission, and York, Franklin, Somerset, Piscataquis, Penobscot and Aroostook counties have high levels.

As of Monday, Cumberland County had the highest vaccination rate of any county in the state, with 83.2 percent of those eligible to receive a vaccine fully vaccinated. That’s compared to the statewide vaccination rate of 70.5 percent among eligible individuals, among the highest in the nation.

Portland is believed to be the only Maine community considering a mask mandate, according to the Maine Municipal Association. However, communities across the United States are enacting local mask mandates in an effort to slow the spread of the delta variant.

Mayor Kate Snyder said she would be very careful about enacting a local mandate. She said there was a lot of confusion at the onset of the pandemic last year when Portland’s emergency rules differed from state rules, putting area businesses at a competitive disadvantage compared to those in surrounding communities.

Snyder said she has received only one email from a business owner requesting a mandate, plus a few emails from people who either support or oppose the idea.

“I agree with (Zarro) that masking indoors is the prudent course, but a mandate is another story,” Snyder said. “I’m cautious walking into that workshop.”

Zarro, who also owns Little Woodfords, a coffee shop on Congress Street, urged everyone at Monday’s council meeting to look out for one another and be compassionate until councilors consider possible action in the coming weeks.

“In the meantime, I ask that you please do your part in preventing the spread in COVID-19 by getting vaccinated if you are able, wearing a mask indoors, and by being compassionate to the many workers and small businesses here in Portland who are trying their best,” Zarro said.

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