The Portland City Council voted to postpone an emergency order to require that people wear masks in most indoor settings regardless of vaccination status.

The proposal brought forward by Councilor Andrew Zarro and endorsed by the city’s public health staff will be revisited by the council next Monday.

At that meeting, councilors are hoping to receive more information about whether pandemic data can be obtained at the city level, the overall availability of personal protective gear (such as masks) and how the city would enforce what would be the only municipal mask mandate in Maine.

The council vote came after businesses disputed the need for a mask mandate at the city level, both in writing and during the public comment period, and after councilors questioned the efficacy of a local mask mandate without regional or state buy-in, or even city-level data to justify its implementation.

Mayor Kate Snyder said she was inclined to support the mask mandate heading into Monday’s meeting, but instead was left with more questions.

“I want to do the right thing from a public health perspective and I want to do the right thing in terms of the viability of our community in terms of people’s livelihoods,” Snyder said. “I agree with my colleagues that the preference here would be to see state level action.”

Though Zarro cast the lone vote against postponement, the mandate has the support of Councilors April Fournier, Pious Ali and Tae Chong.

“We can either wait until the numbers go up and ICU beds are taken or we can try to be preventative and do it now,” said Chong, noting that the onset of flu season could further strain hospital resources.

COVID-19 cases have continued to surge across the United States driven by the highly contagious delta variant. Maine hasn’t been spared even though it has one of the highest vaccination rates in the country. And Portland has one of the highest vaccination rates in the state.

Unlike the original strain of the coronavirus, the delta variant can be transmitted by people who are fully vaccinated, though vaccination helps prevent serious disease, hospitalization and death. But the lack of vaccine availability for children under 12 is a concern for many parents.

The council’s decision came as the state reported a record number of people COVID-19 patients on ventilators. Between 70 and 75 percent of those hospitalized – and nearly 100 percent of people in the ICU on some days – are not fully vaccinated against COVID-19, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention has said.

Portland’s mandate would have applied to people over 2 years old in indoor public settings, including “businesses, clubs, places of assembly, or other places that are open to members of the public, including but not limited to, retail establishments, restaurants, bars, performance and dance venues, social clubs, personal service establishments (i.e. barbershops and hair and nail salons), fitness/health clubs, indoor recreation spaces, event spaces and municipal buildings.”

Exceptions would have been made for performers on stage and for customers who were actively eating or drinking. Councilors had originally discussed including places of workshop, but Corporation Counsel Danielle West said there was a lack of case law in Maine on the subject, so she exempted them.

The council would have reviewed the mandate when the transmission rate in Cumberland County fell to low or moderate levels for at least 21 days, or on Nov. 15, whichever came first.

Throughout most of the pandemic, Portland officials have aligned their policies with state and federal policies. A local mask mandate would have been a departure.

Per U.S. CDC guidelines, masks are recommended – but not required – 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. Cumberland County continues to meet this threshold.

And Gov. Janet Mills’ administration is highlighting the need for vaccinations, not mask-wearing.

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

Councilors heard mostly opposition during a 50-minute public hearing Monday, including from the restaurant industry. However, the strongest objections came from the owners of gyms and fitness studios.

Several gym owners worried they would lose customers, nearly all of whom are are vaccinated, to surrounding communities, which have not enacted mandates. And they worried that there was no longer federal funding to help them make up lost revenue.

Julie Kiger, owner of Portland Power Yoga, was one of several business owners to say she has invested thousands of dollars in air ventilation systems, cleaning supplies and other preventive measures. But her business model relies on people doing strenuous exercise in 95-degree heat, which cannot be done with a mask.

“We are very very attentive to what we can do in our individual business to mitigate the spread and keep people healthy,” Kiger said. “My request is you let us do that on our terms.”

Jim Grattello, who owns the Portland Sports Complex, urged the council only to apply the mandate to essential businesses – like grocery stores, pharmacies and hardware stores.

“You need to segregate businesses that people don’t have to go to and those people go to by choice,” Gratello said. “You don’t have to go to a restaurant, or a fitness center or my sports facility.”

Councilors, however, noted the difficulty of making those determinations.

“People make good points about essential and nonessential, but I don’t know how to define that,” Councilor Nicholas Mavodones said. 

Four people spoke in support of the mandate, including those who either have, or know someone who has, a compromised immune system.

“People like me, with compromised immune systems, are sick of people acting like our lives are disposable,” Bethany O’Meara said. “We just want to be able to live our lives and do our errands and feel like we’re not at risk of dying.”

During deliberations, councilors struggled with wanting to everything possible to stem the virus and prevent hospitals from filling up. However, it appeared as though there was a majority of councilors who believed a mask mandate wouldn’t work, especially since Portland was acting alone. And some councilors worried that the city was enacting a city ordinance, but would not have access to data about transmission rates in the city – they only have access to county data.

“We wouldn’t be doing it in partnership with other communities or in partnership with the rest of the state,” Councilor Belinda Ray said. “Without robust enforcement, we won’t get compliance.”

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