In one local hair salon, no one – two hairdressers and three customers – wore a mask. The workers in a tire store and the servers in a chain restaurant also were maskless.

Inside a department store and two grocery stores, on the other hand, workers were masked up and most customers were, too, although some strolled the aisles without faces covered.

And in Portland’s Old Port, the majority of shoppers wore masks even as they walked outdoors on congested, snowy sidewalks.

A recent swing through Portland businesses reveals wildly varying policies and behaviors when it comes to mask-wearing nearly two years into the COVID-19 pandemic. And it underscores the challenge facing health officials as they try to persuade a mask-weary public to once again cover mouths and noses in all public, indoor settings – whether they are vaccinated or not.

“Generally we can see a decline in protective behaviors everywhere post-vaccination,” David Lazer, a researcher with The COVID States Project and Political Science Professor at Northeastern University said in an email. Mask wearing in particular has plummeted, Lazer said.

Maine’s indoor mask mandate was lifted in May when vaccines became widely available and cases and hospitalizations dropped.

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However, state and federal health agencies have officially recommended that everyone – vaccinated or not – wear masks when indoors in public spaces since late summer, when the delta variant surge began filling hospitals with infected patients.

Two men, one with a mask and one without, walk along Oak Street in Portland. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Now, with the highly contagious omicron variant spreading fast and hospitals pushed to their limits, health officials are stepping up that advice, urging Mainers to wear masks indoors and take other precautions, such as avoiding large gatherings. A growing number of health experts are also recommending people wear N-95 or similar medical-grade masks because they’re better at preventing the spread of omicron than cloth masks.

“I’m increasingly coming around to the view that we need to be upgrading our masks,” Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Nirav Shah said last week. Shah said “the bare minimum” should be the ubiquitous blue surgical masks, but that N95 or KN95 masks are the preferred choice.

Eight states, including California and New York, and many U.S. cities have reimposed indoor mask mandates in recent weeks to slow the spread of omicron.

Portland’s City Council could vote Monday to become the first Maine community to reimpose the requirement. One proposal before the council would require masks indoors, but exempt businesses that require customers to be vaccinated.

Gov. Janet Mills and Maine’s top health officials have so far said they don’t believe such a mandate is needed.

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Mills is encouraging people to wear masks when indoors in public spaces and supports private businesses adopting their own masking requirements, said spokeswoman Lindsay Crete.

“During the State of Civil Emergency, requirements like mask mandates, capacity limits and physical distancing were the only tools available,” Crete said in an email. When vaccines became available, the state transitioned from requirements to recommendations, she said.

Despite the recommendations in place since the summer and the renewed urging of health experts, mask policies and behavior have become wildly inconsistent.

Some stores require employees to wear masks, while others do not. Some stores post signs asking unvaccinated customers to mask up, while relatively few insist everyone wear masks to enter their establishment. Some churches require mask-wearing and social distancing. Others ask that people wear masks. Still others don’t ask at all.

As omicron spreads across the state, the lack of mask-wearing increasingly frustrates people like Buddy Doyle of Gardiner.

“These people are making me angry,” said Doyle, who is fully vaccinated and boosted but wears a mask every time he shops. “It went from ‘Gee, what’s wrong with them?’ to frustration, and now I’m becoming angry … Wearing a mask is the decent, human thing to do.”

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People wearing masks walk along Congress Street in Portland. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

He estimates that about half of the people he sees in local shops are masked up. Doyle said he is 73 and his wife is 75, so they don’t take chances. He passed a man entering a store this week and went out of his way get away from the man, he said.

“I’ve been saying if I have to wear a mask the rest of my life to have the rest of my life, I’m happy to do that. I certainly hope we get to a point we don’t have to wear them, but it’s the way of the world right now. ”

Doyle believes businesses should require masks and said Maine should have a statewide mask mandate in public, indoor places. “My God people are dying,” he said. “The fact that Hannaford hasn’t imposed a mandate (for shoppers) is beyond me. The unvaccinated, non-maskers can call in their grocery order with the to-go program.”

Dr. John Alexander, Chief Medical Officer for Lewiston’s Central Maine Health Care, one of several Maine hospitals overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients, said anyone over the age of 2 should cover their nose and mouth “anytime they are indoor in public spaces, and when in outdoor, crowded spaces,” Alexander said in an email. His advice goes for the fully vaccinated, he said.

Vaccinations and booster shots remain the most important tool to slow the spread of omicron and prevent hospitalizations. Two-thirds of hospitalized COVID-19 patients in Maine are unvaccinated, the percentages are higher in critical care units, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

A woman walks along Free Street in Portland on Monday. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Vaccines dramatically prevent death, severe disease, hospitalization, infection and transmission, Alexander said, but they do not eliminate the risk.

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After getting vaccinated and boosted, mask-wearing and social distancing are the next-best preventative steps, said Dr. Dora Anne Mills, the chief health improvement officer for MaineHealth, a statewide health network that includes Maine Medical center in Portland. (She is also the governor’s sister).

“It’s disappointing to see so many unmasking,” Dr. Mills said. She said she sometimes feels like she’s living in two worlds, one world where there’s a constant crisis in hospital wards. “Then I go out on the street and it’s like, ‘What crisis?’ It’s a very strange place to be.”

As omicron spreads, health experts also are warning that not all masks offer the same protection for the wearer or for the people around them.

“The (disposable) surgical masks do keep aerosols limited to your mask, but don’t keep viral droplets out,” Dr. Mills said. “If there are people around you without a mask and if they’re contagious, you can contract it. And it can also go into your eyes, the eyes are a vehicle for transmission.”

When Dr. Mills pushes her cart into grocery stores she wears eye protection and “a well-fitted N-95 (mask) with two elastics that go over your head,” she said. She orders them online and said they do a better job protecting the wearer from other people’s viral droplets, she said.

The head of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce said Maine does not need to go back to a mask mandate, but predicted more companies and businesses will begin recommending, if not requiring, masks.

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“With the spike we’re all becoming more aware of the need as this continues to rise,” said chamber president Dana Connors.

Connors said the advice is continually evolving and recalled that the official recommendation during much of the summer was to wear a mask if you were unvaccinated. He said he’s become more likely to mask up during the surge.

“I hope it won’t have to be required,” he said. “I don’t think Maine needs a mandate. Businesses throughout this have been sensitive and caring. Businesses will do what is right to protect the staff and customers.”

Some shoppers interviewed in the Old Port said they always wear masks indoors, while others wear them when they are required.

“I definitely wear a mask,” said Mia Kaldenbaugh of Belmont, Mass. “I worry about protecting myself and others.” How much others wear masks “depends on the location,” she said.

Elizabeth Ross said she always brings a mask when running errands in case it’s required, but she’s fully vaccinated a and doesn’t wear one outside. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Elizabeth Ross of Standish says that when running errands she always brings a mask in case it’s required.

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“I’m fully vaccinated and boostered, that’s part of the reason I’m not wearing a mask (now outdoors). But I’m happy to wear a mask whenever the sign says it’s required. I really try not to get too close to anybody’s space. ”

A man wearing a KN-95 mask on Exchange Street who declined to give his name said he’s an emergency room doctor. With a tone of frustration in his voice, he said more people need to listen to the experts.

“There’s not enough people wearing masks,” he said.

Most people don’t go into hospitals or care for sick people who didn’t take precautions, he said. “They don’t see what’s going on.”

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