The Town Council on Tuesday approved, 5-2, a mask mandate for all indoor public spaces in Freeport to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Similar to the recently adopted mandates in Brunswick and Portland, the rules apply to businesses including restaurants, shopping outlets and grocery stores as well as public transportation. It was passed on an emergency basis and came into effect on Wednesday, Jan. 19, lasting for 30 days unless renewed or repealed by the council.

Businesses are required to post signs indicating the new rules by Jan. 25.

Those aged five or younger are exempt, as are customers that are participating “in the primary purpose” of a business, like eating or drinking, so long as the mask removal occurs “at an isolated location, such as a table or booth.”

Councilors Darrel Fournier and Henry “Chip” Lawrence voted in opposition, in part advocating for the decision to be left up to individual businesses

“It’s a feel-good policy,” said Lawrence, questioning the effectiveness of blue surgical masks that are commonly worn. “I’m just against the state telling us what we have to do.”

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On Friday, the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention updated its mask guidance, stating “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.”

Prior to the council’s vote, representatives from Brunswick’s Mid Coast Hospital advocated for vaccination and the effectiveness of masking.

The hospital cited an October 2021 study from the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, which shows that the amount of time necessary to receive an infectious dose of COVID-19 varies based on mask type. The highly contagious omicron variant of COVID-19 was first confirmed in the U.S. on Dec. 1, 2021.

The study indicated that, when infected and uninfected persons in proximity to each other were both wearing typical surgical masks, an uninfected person is safe up to 40 minutes before risking infection.

If both parties are wearing a fit-tested N95 mask, the uninfected would generally receive 25 hours of protection.

As of Tuesday, Mid Coast Hospital was at full capacity and treating 12 patients for COVID-19, four of whom were in the Intensive Care Unit.

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“In our emergency department, every single day is overflowing,” Mid Coast-Parkview Health CEO and President Lois Skillings said. “We have a 21-bed emergency department there are days where we have over 40 patients at once … It’s really been the most challenging that we’ve seen here since the beginning of the pandemic.”

Four out of five residents and businesspeople spoke against the mandate at Tuesday’s meeting.

June Chambers, co-owner of Sunrise Café in Freeport, spoke against the mandate, stating that employee anxiety levels are high at the café, and having to wear a mask for nine hours would only increase that.

“I do worry about losing the dedicated employees that I do have,” Chambers said, adding that she would like the opportunity to highly recommend masks before mandating them.

Freeport resident Jenny Yasi, who spoke in support of the mandate, said she believes the rules would benefit vulnerable people in the community.

“My husband and I have not gone to a restaurant for two years, we used to go to a restaurant twice a week,” Yasi said. “So, we would be going to restaurants if all the employees were wearing masks, if the spacing was safe — same thing with grocery stores.”

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Business owners who do not post a notice of the mask mandate and patrons who do not comply with the rules are subject to a civil violation with a fine of up to $500. Businesses may contact the Freeport Police Department for assistance in removing people who refuse to wear a mask.

In an interview on Wednesday, Maine Beer Company Marketing and Communication Manager Anne Marisic said that prior to town’s mandate, the pub followed all U.S. and Maine CDC guidelines for COVID-19 policy. Marisic said that all employees wore masks prior to the mandate as an in-house request.

“We are happy to go along with what’s best to keep everybody safe and healthy,” Marisic said. “Unfortunately, right now cases are very high, and in the food and beverage environment, there’s a lot more risk there, so we are taking every precaution we can and hopefully we will get out of this soon.”

L.L. Bean Manager of Public Affairs Jason Sulham said in a statement Wednesday that the company will continue adhering to all government requirements.

“In addition to requiring all employees to wear masks while at work, including at our retail locations which also have Plexiglass dividers at all registers, we have been proactive in educating and encouraging all employees to get vaccinated and have been successful in our efforts to make vaccinations as accessible as possible,” said Sulham.

Al Brown, owner of Buck’s Naked BBQ in Freeport, pushed back against the mandate in a statement on Wednesday. Among his reasons, Brown said the mandate will put hostesses in a position of having to argue with noncompliant patrons, and that it will negatively impact business if customers choose to go elsewhere.

“You have done this in the spirit of protecting the citizens of Freeport. Unfortunately, it will not,” said Brown.

According to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 75.8% of eligible Maine residents had received a final dose of the COVID-19 vaccine as of Wednesday. In Freeport, the Maine CDC estimates that 86% of eligible residents are vaccinated.

As of Tuesday, a total of 162,940 cases of COVID-19 have been reported in Maine, resulting in 1,688 deaths. In Cumberland County, 32,462 cases had been reported and 285 deaths.

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