Portland city councilors on Monday will once again debate whether to adopt the state’s only requirement that people wear masks while in indoor public settings regardless of vaccination status.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention only recommends that people wear masks indoors in high transmission areas, which have included much of the state and Cumberland County in recent weeks. But councilors are considering taking it a step further and requiring masks in all indoor spaces.

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.

The proposal has highlighted a fissure in the community, with public health officials supporting a mandate and businesses owners opposing it.

The proposed mandate would apply to anyone over the age of 2, regardless of vaccination status, in any indoor public places, including restaurants, gyms, nail and hair salons, barbershops, retail stores and social clubs. Exemptions would be made for music and theater performers while onstage and for people actively eating or drinking in an establishment.

The original proposal would have kept the mask mandate in place until Cumberland County had gone three weeks with a low to moderate transmission rate, or less than 50 cases per 100,000 people. But several councilors expressed concerns over that metric, since the state is struggling to clear a backlog of tests and has been releasing them in large batches.

An amended order from Councilor April Fournier included in Monday’s council packet would keep the mandate in place until removed by the council. And it would have the mandate take effect next week, rather than immediately, as originally proposed. And it would order the council to revisit the mandate on Oct. 18.

Additional information given to councilors ahead of the meeting doesn’t expand much on enforcement. The city manager previously said that enforcement would likely fall on the local health officer, per the staff recommendation. The local health officer also works to address complaints about bedbugs, mold and hoarding. However, city health staff pointed to two communities in Massachusetts with local mandates, noting that Lexington reported high compliance rates, while Salem receives about two complaints a day but has not cited any businesses.

“As has been done throughout the pandemic, if additional support is necessary to comply with this mandate, the (Health and Human Services) department can temporarily divert staff from other projects,” city health staff wrote.

The council packet also reaffirms the staff’s previous warning that Portland-specific transmission data simply aren’t available and that councilors would have to rely on countywide information.

Meanwhile, councilors continue to get comments both for and against a mandate, with opposition coming largely from business owners and support from health care providers.

Some business owners worried a mask mandate would trigger the hazard pay requirement of a new minimum wage ordinance. But Mayor Kate Snyder noted that the city already has an emergency declaration in effect so city councilors and boards can meet remotely, so the mask mandate would have no bearing on wages.

The hazard wage would only kick in if the city emergency remains in place at the beginning of 2022.

Joanna Pease, owner of Jibe Cycling Studio, which has locations in Portland and Yarmouth, was one of several gym owners seeking an exemption for her industry. She noted that her business has had 65,000 check-ins and not a single COVID-19 transmission since June 2020. She said wearing a mask during high-intensity workouts is difficult and not recommended.

Pease said membership dropped by 25 percent last November when the state mandate took effect and she worries another mandate would put her and others out of business.

“There are many gyms outside of Portland that will not have this mandate, and with the workforce still mostly remote, people will have no problem finding alternatives in Scarborough, Westbrook or Falmouth,” she said.

Others supported the mandate.

Coveside Coffee owner Zara Bohan said in an email to councilors on Thursday that she supports mask mandates, as well as vaccine mandates, as a small-business owner and the parent of two young children.

“If our four year old can wear a mask all day long at school, adults can manage to wear one to do their grocery shopping,” Bohan said.

City health officials have urged the council to enact a mandate immediately. And since the last council meeting, they have received support from other health officials.

Dr. Renee Fay-Leblanc said the city needs to use every tool available to slow the spread of the highly contagious delta variant, which is prevalent in Maine and the rest of the country.

“Masks have been proven to help slow the spread of COVID-19 and are one of the tools we should employ,” Fay-Leblanc said. “Having a citywide mask mandate will take the pressure off individual organizations and businesses and make all situations clearer for Portland citizens: masks are required everywhere indoors.”

Dr. Shulamith Bonham, clinical director at the Ryan White HIV/AIDS & Infectious Disease Program at Greater Portland Health, agreed, adding that a mask mandate will help protect children under the age of 12, who are too young to be vaccinated and are susceptible to more severe symptoms caused by the delta variant.

“Our lives are harder now than they were last winter, before the mask mandate was lifted,” Bonham said. “We cannot safely go to the grocery store, to our local coffeeshop, or to the library. We love Portland but are barely living in it, because we can’t trust others to keep our kids safe. Mask mandates certainly don’t fix all the problems, but they do make a big difference and that is what we need now.”

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.

As of Sunday, Maine hospitals had 207 COVID-19 patients, equaling the record high set on Jan. 13. Between 70 and 75 percent of Maine hospital patients, and nearly all of the people in intensive care, have not been fully vaccinated, according to state officials and hospital administrators.

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

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