On the streets of Maine’s largest city, news of a new indoor mask mandate was met mostly with a collective shrug Tuesday.

Passers-by on the cold, downtown streets Tuesday morning either agreed with the mandate or took it in stride, as did many local business owners.

Starting Wednesday, anyone entering a public building in Portland must wear a face covering, though establishments that restrict entry to those with proof of full vaccination are exempt from the requirement.

Kyle Pontau, 36, who was waiting near an idling car on Congress Street, said he’d read news about the new rules that morning.

“It should have happened earlier, in my opinion,” said Pontau, a construction project manager. “Why did they wait so long? Case numbers have been going up since October.”

Pontau also said he thought it was hypocritical for the City Council to vote to enact a mask mandate but lift the state of emergency that had just triggered a $19.50 per hour minimum wage under the city’s hazard pay law.

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“If it’s so hazardous that you have to wear a mask, then you should get paid more,” he said.

Farther up Congress Street, Tristin McInnis, 20, was headed into a 24-hour gym. She did not know about the mask mandate, but welcomed it. “It think it is very wise. I think it protects a lot of the interactive spaces inside,” McInnis said.

The mandate applies to nearly all indoor public spaces, including stores, bars and restaurants, gyms, theaters and other spaces.

McInnis is used to wearing a mask almost full-time as a student at Maine College of Art and Design. “If you don’t wear a mask you can’t go to class,” she said. Wearing one indoors the rest of the time isn’t a big stretch if it helps protect people, she said.

‘IT’S NOT AN IMPOSITION’

Bonnie Crockett, 66, felt the same way. Her apartment requires masks to be worn in the hallways and elevator so there’s little difference to wearing a mask to go into a store too, she said. “It’s not an imposition,” Crockett said.

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Tyler Sunshein, who was finishing up a workout at World Gym on Marginal Way on Tuesday afternoon, wasn’t looking forward to wearing a mask all the time but approved of the new rule. “I think it’s definitely a good thing, but it is pretty inconvenient for some people,” he said.

Thomas Kenneally of Portland shops at Maine Hardware on Tuesday. He supports the mask mandate, saying, “We have to take precautions because people aren’t doing it on their own.” Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Jill Howard, 24, didn’t know the Portland City Council passed a mask rule, but it didn’t bother her. “I don’t mind wearing a mask at all,” she said. “If it is another step to protect everyone we can, then I’m all for it.”

Howard has stayed away from busy public spaces in Portland, but felt comfortable on a recent trip to New York City, where restaurant patrons have to show proof of vaccination to get seated inside. “I’ve been avoiding downtown and I was planning on avoiding it for the next month or so,” Howard said. “If there was a vaccine mandate, it might change my mind.”

Masking indoors and out is commonplace in much of Portland and many businesses already require face coverings inside. A handful of restaurants and the city’s major entertainment venues require proof of vaccination.

Portlanders are among the most inoculated in Maine, with 84-90 percent of residents fully vaccinated, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Maine hasn’t had statewide COVID-19 regulations since May 2021, when nearly all masking and social distancing requirements were dropped. At the time, the U.S. CDC recommended that only unvaccinated people needed to wear a mask and a tidal wave of vaccinations led to optimism the worst of the pandemic might be behind us.

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Most Portland residents interviewed Tuesday seemed resigned to how much things had changed.

ENFORCEMENT CONCERNS

But while business owners and workers appeared ready to accept the new rule, some said figuring out how to enforce it, after so many months without coronavirus regulations, could be tricky.

General Manager Tim Currier of Maine Hardware, left, talks with an employee Tuesday. Currier expects that customers who didn’t like the state’s mask mandate may shop for hardware in South Portland if they object to Portland’s new requirement.  Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Enforcement is made more difficult by the fact that Portland’s mandate won’t apply to neighboring communities, said Tim Currier, general manager of Maine Hardware on St. John Street.

“It’s coming from the city now and not from the state,” he said. “It was hard enough when it was coming from the state before.”

Currier said some customers complained about the state’s mask mandate. He expects those customers may shop for hardware in South Portland if they object to Portland’s mask requirement. He also worries about workers having to deal with customers who object to wearing a mask.

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“A lot of employees had a lot of anxiety over it” when the statewide mandate was in place, he said. “It puts a lot on the crew.”

Currier said he’s ordered signs to inform customers of the new mask mandate but doesn’t have enough employees to assign one to watch the door – so enforcement will have to come if and when employees see someone shopping without a mask.

“I don’t know how it’s going to go down,” he said. “I’m still reading things right now so I understand everything and whether they expect us just to put signs up or if they expect us to be the police.”

Haley Deluca Lowell gets ready to eat lunch inside the Public Market House on Tuesday. DeLuca Lowell hadn’t heard about the city’s new mask mandate, but said she usually wears her mask inside public places anyway. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Commercial Street Pub owner John Guinn will require customers to show proof that they’ve been vaccinated to avoid the mask mandate. That’s easier than trying to make people wear masks all night inside a crowded bar, he said.

As of Wednesday, Guinn said, “If you don’t have a vaccination card, you can’t drink here.” But he worries about the reaction of customers.

There were confrontations with customers, he said, when the state mandated masks, and he’s worried about a repeat.

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“People don’t get it,” he said. “They come from out of state or from the counties up north and they don’t understand the rules in Portland.”

News of the mandate did take some people by surprise. At Peace Food Market, a small convenience store on Cumberland Avenue, manager Ahmed Mohammed said he had no idea about it.

SOME GROUCHY CUSTOMERS

The store has not been requiring masks, Mohamed said, and he wasn’t sure how to do so.

“We’ll just have to go by the mandate and follow the rules,” he said.

For Greg Grant, a clerk at City Beverage, a convenience store in the heart of the Old Port, a new mask mandate means more grouchy customers and headaches.

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“It’s just like last time. I’ll just have to fight with people,” Grant said. “Those that don’t like it will definitely let me know about it.”

He also expressed his frustration with the city’s decision to require masks but let the state of emergency – and his hazard pay – lapse, all during a meeting held remotely for safety.

“I’m all for the whole mask thing, but at the same time I don’t want to fight with it,” he said.

The Public Market House, in Monument Square, has been recommending but not requiring masks. Jordan Rubin, co-owner of Mr. Tuna on the market’s first floor, said he plans to put up a sign with the new mask requirements Wednesday.

“We’re just trying to do our part to slow the spread of it and keep people safe, it that’s what it takes in the meantime until things get better,” Rubin said.

Market customers are pretty good at masking already, but enforcing the new mandate could be tricky, said Marisa Lewiecki, Mr. Tuna co-owner and market manager. Seven food stands share space in the market, making it harder to make sure people follow the rules than it would be in a standalone restaurant.

“We get more pushback than other restaurants because we have a bunch of different businesses,” Lewiecki said. “I’m sure there will be pushback to the mandate. We are prepared for it.”

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