Portland city councilors voted Monday night to postpone action on an emergency order that has allowed them to meet remotely because of COVID-19 until Jan. 3, when they may also discuss an indoor mask mandate.

“We can make the motion to postpone to the 3rd, where we can address both the emergency order and amending the order to add a mask mandate,” said Councilor April Fournier.

Fournier’s motion to postpone action on the emergency order was approved 6-3 by the council with councilors Mark Dion, Tae Chong and Mayor Kate Snyder voting against the postponement.

The debate came as Maine is seeing some of its worst case numbers and hospitalizations of the pandemic. There were 380 people hospitalized with COVID-19 in the state Monday, including 130 in critical care, and officials have warned that cases are likely to increase in the coming weeks with the more contagious omicron variant now in Maine.

Some other cities around the country are taking steps to increase pandemic safety measures to curb the spread of the virus. Boston announced new vaccine requirements for indoor dining, fitness and entertainment venues Monday, while Washington, D.C. re-imposed an indoor mask mandate that will take effect Tuesday.

The emergency order Portland is currently operating under requires the City Council, as well as its committees, to meet remotely during the pandemic and recommends that other city boards and commissions do the same. The city also has a remote participation policy that allows for remote and hybrid meetings but decisions on the format would need to be made on a meeting-by-meeting basis.

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“Being in the position I’m in, there was a lot of pressure to get back in-person before the Dec. 6 meeting,” Snyder said in explaining her vote Monday. “I’m watching those fluctuations (with the virus) and I want to be responsive to the council and the community when people say, ‘Let’s get back in person’ and make those determinations on a case-by-case basis.”

Councilors who voted to postpone any action to repeal the emergency order, meanwhile, said they still feel as though the city is in crisis.

“Everyday we go into work on the frontlines while this is surging, I absolutely believe we are in a state of emergency and our workers deserve hazard pay,” Fournier said. “I’m not supportive of lifting the state of emergency at this time … and I absolutely would want to consider in the future an amendment that would include a mask mandate.”

By remaining in place, the emergency order triggers a new hazard pay ordinance on Jan. 1 that raises the city’s minimum wage 1.5 times during a state, city or county emergency. The order had also previously been tied to consideration of an indoor mask mandate, but the city’s legal counsel offered new advice Monday saying an indoor mask mandate could likely be done in an ordinance separate from the emergency order.

The council heard public comment from several people Monday night, with a majority speaking in favor of keeping the emergency order.

David Aceto said he is a small business owner who supports the emergency order, especially as he has recently had two employees quit because they feel unsafe coming to work.

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“I know small business owners are struggling right now, especially as we’re getting ready to hit the depths of winter,” Aceto said. “I know employees are also struggling, too, deciding whether it’s worth it to pick up that extra shift to pay rent and heat on time. I along with many business owners in the area are happy to do our part to support our workers with $19.50 hourly.”

Buddy Moore also encouraged councilors to vote against ending the state of emergency.

“Our local hospitals are nearing ICU capacity, we’re seeing more cases and omicron is looming over us,” Moore said. “How is this not a state of emergency? I think it’s clear to me individuals against this emergency are more concerned with business profits and having to pay hazard pay than they are about human well-being and helping to improve the lives of their workers.”

Greg Dugal, director of government affairs for Hospitality Maine, a trade group representing the hospitality industry, said some businesses are concerned about paying the additional wages and how it may impact employees who currently earn around $20 per hour and won’t see a bump in pay.

“Not everybody is accepting of this, but many people feel uncomfortable standing up and saying anything because they think they’ll be disparaged,” Dugal said.

Some residents who spoke in public comment also said they support a mask mandate. A mandate was not on Monday’s agenda, though some councilors said it is something they’d like to reconsider. The council previously rejected a mask mandate in October.

“I’m not trying to not be transparent (by not having a mandate on the agenda) but I think this is a really serious situation,” said Councilor Victoria Pelletier. “Individuals are dying and the majority of calls and emails I’m getting are people advocating for safety and advocating for a mandate, which didn’t make the agenda, which is on us.”

Councilor Andrew Zarro said he is “all for” talking about a mask mandate on Jan. 3. “We have to do something,” Zarro said. “We’ve been doing an emergency order without a mask mandate and without a vaccine mandate, and it’s just not working. When it’s not working you have to fix it.”

In other news Monday, the council also voted to set an election for June 14 to fill three vacancies on the school board. The date is the same as the next regularly scheduled municipal election and the election will be for a District 5 and two at large seats.


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