The City Council deadlocked over a proposal to make Portland the only municipality in the state to enact a mask-wearing mandate in all indoor public spaces regardless of vaccination status.

The mandate would have applied to anyone over the age of 2 and would have included restaurants, gyms, nail and hair salons, barbershops, retail stores and social clubs. Exemptions were proposed for music and theater performers while onstage, and for people actively eating or drinking in an establishment.

Mayor Kate Snyder said she opposed the mask mandate because she felt it should be done on a regional or state level. She said the city could mount an educational campaign in line with state and federal efforts to urge, but not require, indoor mask-wearing, rather than enacting a mandate that it could not enforce.

“I think we have options for other pathways forward,” Snyder said.

The 4-4 vote means the proposal does not pass, but it does not go away either. Portland has a nine-member council, but Spencer Thibodeau resigned on Monday to take a job in the Biden administration and did not participate in Monday’s meeting.


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Corporation Counsel Danielle West said the proposal will continue to appear on the council’s agenda until it is indefinitely postponed, or amended to gain support.

“It keeps coming back like a bad penny,” West said.

City Councilor Andrew Zarro, who urged the council to consider a mask mandate in August, said that if councilors don’t support a citywide mandate, then they should end an emergency declaration that allows councilors to meet remotely, rather than in person. He said the council position against mask mandates, but in support of remote meetings, was “incongruent.”

“Maybe that’s a conversation worth revisiting,” Zarro said.

The council action came after city public health officials endorsed an indoor mask mandate and as Maine hospitals are struggling to care for a late-summer surge of COVID-19 patients, driven primarily by the more contagious delta variant.

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.

Data from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention showed that hospitalizations caused by COVID-19 reached a record high of 214 people on Monday. Public health and hospital representatives have estimated that 70 to 75 percent of all hospitalized patients, and nearly all patients in intensive care units, are unvaccinated against COVID-19.

It also comes as Pfizer announced that it plans to seek emergency authorization to begin vaccinating children between 5 and 11. Health officials say the authorization could be granted around the end of October or early November. It’s news that parents have been waiting to hear.

GOING IT ALONE QUESTIONED

The council debate focused on the effectiveness of Portland enacting a mandate alone without regional or state action. The Mills administration is focusing its messaging on vaccinations, rather than discussing new mask mandates.

Proponents of the mandate argued that, as a service center, Portland had a unique obligation to mandate mask-wearing indoors in the absence of state action. But opponents reached the opposite conclusion, saying that only regional or statewide mandates would be effective and that local businesses could suffer.

Councilor Tae Chong, who supported the mandate, noted that Portland’s daytime population can swell from about 66,000 people at night to nearly 100,000 during the day, with people from all over the region and state coming to visit, shop and access services, like health care. He said a mandate in Portland would actually protect people in other communities by reducing the chances they would become infected in the city and bring the virus home.

“As a service center, we have to act in different ways and I believe we have more responsibilities,” Chong said. “When you capture all of those people, they go back in their communities. By having a mandate, we’re not only protecting people who are here – we’re protecting the region as well.”

City Councilors April Fournier and Zarro noted how hard Maine had been hit by the delta variant as a reason to support a mandate.

“We cannot wait for the state to take the lead here,” Fournier said. “We cannot wait another few weeks to see if that happens.”

Councilor Pious Ali also supported the mandate.

Opponents, however, said there were better ways to affect behavior, namely by emphasizing personal responsibility. They noted that the state’s two largest health care providers – MaineHealth and Northern Light Health – declined to take a position on the mandate.

In a joint statement, the hospitals, facing high patient counts and more severe illness, said they continue to urge everyone to do what they can to prevent the spread of disease. They did not call for mandates but encouraged everyone to get vaccinated, mask while indoors, practice social distancing, maintain good hygiene and reconsider large indoor gatherings.

“We know that following these preventive measures has proven effective at reducing the spread of COVID-19, and we continue to support taking these precautions because we all must do our part to save lives by limiting the spread of COVID-19, and reduce demand on our health care system,” the hospitals said.

ENFORCEMENT ALSO AN ISSUE

Enforcement also was an issue. City staff noted that enforcement would fall on the local health officer.

Councilor Nicholas Mavodones, who is operations manager at Casco Bay Lines, said he worried that the bulk of enforcement activities would fall on local businesses and their staff. “It’s very challenging on front-line staff who are dealing with that,” said Mavodones, who opposed the mandate. 

City Councilor Mark Dion also opposed the mandate.

Councilors have taken up the issue twice in recent weeks, but postponed a vote last week in order to get more information about local transmission rates and details about city enforcement. However, countywide data is the most specific available on a regular basis.

During a public hearing last week, a divide emerged between public health officials and members of the general public, who support a mandate, and area businesses, especially fitness centers, which opposed it.

Several councilors who voted against the mandate worried about how their votes would be characterized by supporters.

“I don’t want people to spin this as a pro-profit and a pro-public health discussion,” City Councilor Belinda Ray said. “I could see that being the fallout after this discussion.”

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