The Portland City Council voted Monday to implement a city-wide indoor mask mandate that includes an exception for businesses that require COVID-19 vaccinations, taking the step after it also repealed an emergency order that triggered a hazard pay provision.

The mask mandate, which takes effect at midnight Wednesday, was approved unanimously after the council rejected an amendment offered by Councilor Roberto Rodriguez. Heeding the advice of city health officials, he proposed removing an exception for businesses that check vaccination status and limit entry to those who are vaccinated.

The council also voted 8-1 to repeal an emergency order that has been in effect since August requiring it to meet remotely because of the pandemic, a move that eliminates a hazard pay provision raising Portland’s minimum wage to $19.50 an hour. Councilor Victoria Pelletier was the dissenting vote and said that while she doesn’t want the city to be trapped in an emergency order indefinitely, the hazard pay issue raises questions about equity.

“How are we in good faith saying we’re a city that prioritizes its workers and its low-income and its communities of color, beyond the Black Lives Matter and a ‘thank you’ to essential workers?” Pelletier said. “And how are we adding equity as a top issue we want to tackle in Portland without actually providing financial compensation to those who need it?”

Triggered by a city ordinance whenever a state or city emergency is in effect, hazard pay is set at 1.5 times the city’s minimum wage, which is currently $13 an hour. The repeal of the emergency order will take effect in 10 days, though city attorney Jen Thompson said at the end of Monday’s council meeting that it was unclear whether that means the order will be lifted Jan. 13 or Jan. 14. “I will with more precision first thing in the morning, let you know if that’s the 13th or the 14th,” Thompson told the council.

Until the order takes effect, the council and its committees will continue to meet remotely, Mayor Kate Snyder said. “And then we will default to our remote meeting policy,” she said. The policy allows the council to make decisions on a meeting-by-meeting basis about whether to be in-person or remote.

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Dozens of people weighed in with public comment on the emergency order and mask mandate before the council votes.

Sadie Tirrell, a registered nurse, urged the council to implement a mask mandate. She said masks have been shown to lower the transmission of COVID-19. “It just frustrates me greatly to see elective surgeries canceled while we don’t have a citywide mask mandate in place,” Tirrell said. “It’s heart-breaking when you have to see it and you’re looking people in the eye, and you’re caring for them, and the care is not what it should be because the hospitals are at a breaking point.”

Gyms and fitness centers were among those who expressed concern with the proposal. “We’re kind of all put in the same bucket and I don’t think it makes sense,” said Joanna Pease, who owns Jibe Cycling Studio on Free Street. “For a gym, wearing a mask while you’re sweating profusely is not recommended by the CDC and it’s dangerous.”

Assistant Manager Audrey Bardales restocks shelves at Rosemont Market & Bakery in Portland on Monday. The mask mandate passed by the City Council says that any person entering a public building in the city will be required to wear a face covering over their mouth and nose.  Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Pease said she doesn’t believe in enforcing a vaccine mandate though her studio offers some vaccinated-only classes. “I think there’s this blanket idea that everyone can get vaccinated and everyone can do it,” she said. “There are people who are immunocompromised who cannot get vaccinated. We also have many women who have just given birth and cannot get vaccinated.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends vaccinations for both immunocompromised people and women who are pregnant or breastfeeding. Pease clarified later that while pregnant and breastfeeding women are able to get vaccinated, she has heard from several who have told her they aren’t comfortable due to personal concerns.

Earlier in the meeting, the council also heard from several members of the public on the emergency order, including small-business owners who talked about the impact the hazard pay ordinance would have on them.

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Alba Zakja, who owns Coffee Me Up on Cumberland Avenue, called on the council to end the state of emergency and said many businesses are currently heading into their slowest time of the year. Zakja said she and her husband are already paying their employees as much as possible and to go to a $19.50 minimum wage “will break us.”

“We were talking the other day, ‘What are we going to do if this passes?'” Zakja said. “We would have to move out of Portland and that would hurt me so much because we love the community here and everyone in the community has been a family to us.”

Councilors said that while they sympathize with front-line workers and believe more needs to be done to address economic inequality, they were also moved by the feedback from businesses and said the emergency order, which dates to August, was never intended to remain in place long-term.

“I am deeply troubled by the idea we do have minimum wage workers in Portland who are front-line workers who are put at risk without any risk compensation on a daily basis,” Councilor Anna Trevorrow said. “I wish this was a larger conversation we were having to be able to reconcile these things and figure out what we can do to help everybody in this situation, but that is not the conversation for tonight, unfortunately. We’re forced with having to make a decision on this emergency order.”

The mask mandate says that any person entering a public building in the city will be required to wear a face covering over their mouth and nose. Public buildings include any buildings in the city open to the general public, although the mandate does not apply to public schools; churches; office space where occupants can be physically separated from the general public; or portions of a gym, theater or athletic arena where everyone performing or exercising has been vaccinated and there is space, a physical barrier or ventilation separating them from the general public.

The mandate is subject to review by the council every 30 days and the city manager also could suspend the mandate through an executive order if the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finds that the seven-day average of new cases for Cumberland County drops to a “moderate” level for a period of 10 consecutive days.

City health officials backed the mask mandate but not the exemption for businesses that check vaccination status. “Health and human services does not necessarily agree with the exemption for vaccination,” Director of Health and Human Services Kristen Dow told the council. “We believe we need to use all mitigation strategies at our disposal including the temporary indoor mask mandate and it’s important to remember no one single measure will mitigate COVID-19 and all the strategies must be used together if we’re going to see a successful decline in numbers.”

The amendment by Rodriguez to eliminate the exemption failed 6-3 with Trevorrow and Councilor Pious Ali joining Rodriguez in supporting the amendment.

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