SOUTH PORTLAND — One of Maine’s largest service centers is expected to issue a mask mandate for all public buildings as soon as Friday in an effort to curb the spread of the omicron variant of COVID-19.

Unlike similar rules adopted in recent days in Portland and Brunswick, the South Portland mandate would carry no fines and no city workers would be responsible for enforcing the requirement.

The City Council on Tuesday night directed City Manager Scott Morelli to draw up an emergency proclamation to be signed by Mayor Deqa Dhalac on Friday. The proclamation would authorize Morelli to “take whatever actions are necessary to prevent the loss of life and property in the city.”

Morelli said he would issue a mask mandate soon after, and the council would be asked to approve the proclamation the following Tuesday, meeting a five-day requirement to ensure it stays in effect until the threat of the virus fades.

All but one councilor indicated support for the mandate during Tuesday’s workshop. They also plan to provide some signs and masks to businesses, but they decided against exempting businesses that require proof of vaccination.

Dhalac said wearing masks in public is a matter of common sense for the greater good, and it’s unfortunate that protecting others from catching COVID-19 has been politicized from the start. She noted that hundreds of local hospital workers have been out sick in recent weeks.

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“We really have to look at it as a public health issue,” Dhalac said. “We all are connected. We have to mitigate this thing.”

Councilor Jocelyn Leighton said she decided to seek a mask mandate because it’s a matter of public safety and community care. Among the residents and business owners she has spoken with, Leighton said “100 percent” supported a mandate, particularly to protect employees and help customers feel safe.

“We need to take care of each other,” Leighton said. “I don’t think we should fine people. We are here to say this is an important thing to do.”

Linda Cohen was the lone councilor to oppose a mandate, saying she favored issuing a proclamation recommending mask wearing. Cohen said she is vaccinated, boosted and wears a mask whenever she’s in public buildings.

“Why do we have to tell adults the right thing to do?” Cohen asked. “I think we’ve gotten to the point where we have to look out for ourselves.”

The council heard testimony from 11 residents during the Zoom meeting – six who supported a mandate and five who opposed or questioned it.

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Supporters said a mandate would be a common sense move to reduce transmission, relieve pressure on overwhelmed health care workers and decrease the social and economic problems brought by COVID-19.

“I think this has to happen as quickly as possible,” said Rosemarie De Angelis, who said she recently was diagnosed with COVID-19 despite being vaccinated and boosted.

Opponents questioned how it would be enforced without involving police or putting an additional burden on businesses that are short-staffed and already struggling to stay open.

“I’m not sure how the city expects us to do this,” said Chuck Martin, a business owner.

South Portland has a relatively high vaccination rate, with 87 percent of all residents having received at least one dose of vaccine, according to the Maine Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The U.S. CDC currently recommends that people age 2 and up wear masks when physical distancing isn’t possible or in crowded indoor or outdoor public settings.

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Last week, the CDC updated its guidance on the best masks to prevent transmission of COVID-19, saying “loosely woven cloth products provide the least protection; layered finely woven products offer more protection; well-fitting disposable surgical masks and KN95s offer even more protection; and well-fitting NIOSH-approved respirators (including N95s) offer the highest level of protection.”

The city currently recommends masking in municipal facilities when COVID-19 is designated in “substantial transmission” by the Maine CDC, and it requires masking in city facilities when the virus status is “high transmission.” The state has been designated “high transmission” since September.

The state previously had both indoor and outdoor mask mandates at different periods since the onset of the pandemic in March 2020, a city staff memo said. The last mandate expired on May 24, about a month before Gov. Janet Mills allowed a statewide state of emergency to expire on June 30.

City staff advised the council that while Mills recently asked businesses to encourage employees and patrons to wear masks indoors, she hasn’t indicated that she plans to institute a statewide mask mandate.

Other cities are ahead of South Portland in moving on mask mandates. Portland adopted a mandate that went into effect Jan. 5, followed by Brunswick’s ordinance on Jan. 12. Lewiston issued a mask recommendation Jan. 10 and Freeport is considering a mask mandate. Bangor and Auburn have no current plans to issue mask mandates, Morelli said.

Portland’s mandate requires people age 2 and up to wear masks when inside public places, according to the city’s website. Businesses must post “masks required” signs. Businesses that require proof of vaccination by all on premises don’t have to require masks. The City Council will review the ordinance every 30 days.

Portland’s mandate will be enforced by the local health officer. Violating the ordinance is a civil infraction subject to a fine up to $500 per offense. However, the city’s primary focus will be on education and voluntary compliance, a spokesperson said.

Brunswick’s mask ordinance requires all people in buildings accessible to the public to wear coverings over their noses and mouths, according to the town’s website. Places of worship are excluded. Face coverings also must be worn when using or operating public transportation, including ride shares, taxis and other vehicles for hire. The ordinance will be enforced by the local health officer and police, with potential fines up to $500 per violation.

Area chambers of commerce have indicated support for mask mandates as long as they are reviewed regularly and allow exemptions, including for businesses that require proof of vaccination.


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