City councilors and staff expressed support Wednesday for requiring people to wear masks in public indoor settings in Portland regardless of vaccination status.

However, councilors said they won’t vote on a mandate until Monday to provide time for councilors to get questions answered and for the city attorney to draft a formal proposal for the public to review.

The council was originally scheduled to discuss the mask mandate, at the request for Councilor Andrew Zarro, after its business meeting Wednesday. But Mayor Kate Snyder rescheduled so the discussion could take place before the council meeting in case councilors wanted to act on a recommendation from the city’s public health staff that such a mandate be enacted immediately based on the rising case numbers.

“I’m a little reluctant to act on the fly tonight during our council meeting,” said Snyder, who supported the mandate. “If we can act next Monday, it gives us time to refine (the proposal).”

During Wednesday’s hourlong workshop, councilors mostly supported a mandate for people 2 and older but had several unanswered questions around enforcement, whether the city would be able to help businesses acquire personal protective equipment and when the mandate would expire.

Councilors also discussed possible exemptions, including not requiring performers to wear masks while on stage and not requiring them when people are actively eating or drinking.


Corporation Counsel Danielle West said she would draft a proposal for council action on Monday. She said the mandate would apply to all public indoor facilities regardless of vaccination status, including restaurants, retail stores, gyms, museums, theaters and houses of worship. And she would include exemptions for performers, people addressing groups at houses of worship, and people actively eating or drinking.

West said the council would need to enact it as an emergency for it to take effect immediately. Otherwise, it would take effect in 10 days.

Portland would become the first municipality in Maine to re-enact a wide-ranging mask requirement.

The recommendation comes as COVID-19 cases continue to surge across the state and the country and as people will soon begin spending more time indoors. Unlike previous strains, the delta variant can be transmitted by people who have been vaccinated, though vaccinated individuals experience less severe symptoms and are less likely to be hospitalized. And it’s having a greater impact on children, most of whom are too young to be vaccinated.

Maine continues to see a surge in cases driven by the delta variant and it’s been impacting local school districts and straining hospitals, where four out of five people hospitalized with COVID-19 are unvaccinated.

On Wednesday, state officials reported 732 new cases of COVID-19 over a four-day period that included Labor Day. There were six additional deaths.


The seven-day average of daily new cases stood at 317.1 on Wednesday, which is up from 282.1 a week ago and 122.4 a month ago. Cumberland County is one of 13 counties experiencing high levels of transmission, despite being one of the most vaccinated in the state, with 368 new cases over the last seven days.

Per U.S. CDC guidelines, masks are recommended indoors in areas of high or substantial transmission regardless of vaccination status. High transmission is defined as at least 100 cases per 100,000 people in the most recent seven-day period, while substantial transmission is at least 50 cases per 100,000 people.

According to staff research, six states and about 70 municipalities and counties have mask mandates in place for indoor settings regardless of vaccination status.

When Gov. Janet Mills’ emergency order expired on June 30, that ended mask mandates across the state. Portland’s state of emergency ended in July, but councilors declared a limited emergency to allow the council and other city boards and committees to continue meeting remotely. It also extended street closures and other pandemic-related accommodations for local businesses, allowing more space for outdoor dining and retail.

City Manager Jon Jennings said he spoke with the governor’s office Wednesday afternoon and they had no plans to adopt a statewide mandate, since the state of emergency has expired.

Jennings also sought to temper expectations that the city would be able to conduct robust enforcement of a mandate.


“I’m asking everyone to be realistic about what city staff can do in terms of enforcement,” he said. “We’re not going to be able to provide the backing for every restaurant and business who wants to enforce a mandate.”

Fire Chief Keith Gautreau said he supports a mandate and added that he already requires masking  among fire department staff.

Kristen Dow, director of the city’s Health and Human Services Department, said other cities and counties in New England have enacted their own mask mandates. She said that Somerville, Massachusetts, with a population of 80,000 people, enacted a mandate when they had a positivity rate of about 1.5 percent. And Salem, Massachusetts, with a population of 43,000 people, enacted a mask mandate when their rate was 2.3 percent.

Dow noted that Cumberland County’s positivity rate was nearly 3.3 percent.

“We recommend that we do everything we can until we see numbers improve,” she said. “We know this is not the easy answer, but from a public health perspective we think it’s the right answer.”

City Councilor Spencer Thibodeau wondered when the mandate would end.


Public health staff had originally recommended that the mandate continue until Cumberland County had seen 21 straight days of low or moderate transmission.

But Thibodeau questioned whether that would work, since the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention doesn’t release daily numbers, especially over holidays and weekends. He was concerned that would make it difficult for the city to track. And there will continue to be break-through infections among people who are vaccinated, he said.

Thibodeau also noted that Portland’s vaccination rate is higher than the county rate of about 83 percent. He wondered what councilors should tell people who have been following all of the necessary guidelines.

“If we’re one community in a county of 83 percent vaccination, I just have some concerns about what our metrics are,” Thibodeau said. “I want to make sure we’re explaining what our science tells us and how we communicate that to the population in our city.”

Tina Pettingill, deputy director of the city’s Health and Human Services Department, stressed that masking provides an additional layer of protection for everyone – but especially for children under 12 who cannot yet be vaccinated.

“I can’t emphasize enough, we have this whole population of people we need to protect,” Pettingill said. “Whether we’re vaccinated or not, we can pass it to children.”

City Councilor Mark Dion noted that the city will need to continue to change its game plan as the pandemic evolves.

“This is a game with no goal posts,” he said. “I have no idea when this is going to be over.”

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