A mask mandate for all public buildings is likely to go into effect as soon as Friday in South Portland to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The City Council Tuesday told City Manager Scott Morelli to draft an emergency proclamation that would allow him to enact the mask mandate. Mayor Deqa Dhalac is expected to sign the emergency order Friday, effectively putting it into play for five days, and the council will officially vote on it next Tuesday.

“The CDC currently recommends that you should wear a mask in public indoor settings where there are areas of substantial or high transmission of COVID,”  Morelli told the council Tuesday. “Cumberland County has been in high transmission since early September 2021.”

The CDC defines a high transmission rate as 100 or more cases per 100,000 population, or a positivity rate of 10% or more of the population, within a 7-day period. Cumberland County is among 3,204 counties nationwide that has a high transmission rate, according to the most recent CDC data. Only 16 counties within the United States are not currently considered to have a high transmission rate, with six considered substantial and 10 considered low.

South Portland, with a population of 26,250, has seen 2,568 probable and confirmed cases of COVID-19 through Jan. 16, 2022, with a population of 26,250, according to the Maine Division of Disease Surveillance.

The city updated its health measures in August 2021 to align more closely with those of the CDC and in response to the County Transmission Level being increased from substantial to high. The high transmission recommendations included a mask requirement inside city buildings, and that staff members, boards and committees are encouraged to meet virtually.


South Portland schools currently require students and staff to be masked when indoors.

South Portland’s mandate differs from the mandates in Portland and Brunswick; there will not be fines issued to non-compliers and no city staff will be responsible for enforcing the requirement.

Councilor Linda Cohen was the only councilor who spoke against a mask mandate at a public hearing Tuesday.

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

Residents spoke in favor and in opposition to a mandate.

John Pani said a mask mandate would make them feel more safe.


“My wife and I went grocery shopping recently, and in one of the grocery stores in town, everyone wears a mask,” he said. “We felt free. We were really happy to be there. We felt safe there.”

Pani avoids local stores where employees and customers are unmasked, he said.

Kate Hopkins of Davis Street, who said she was a vaccinated nurse, is against the mandate.

“I think that there’s really a desire to feel like you’re doing something and I think we’ve done that,” she said. “Ultimately, I don’t think that a mask mandate really makes sense. I think it is going to be hard to enforce.”

Chuck Martin, who owns a retail business in the west end of the city, is also worried about the mandate’s enforceability.

“I don’t think there’s a one-size fits all solution for every business here,” he said. “In mine, there’s often periods of the day when it’s only staffed by one person and I don’t think it’s realistic, or even really safe, to task that person with policing the city’s mask policies while still performing their job duties and helping customers.”


Councilor Jocelyn Leighton stated that “100 percent” of the business owners and residents she had spoken to prior to the workshop supported the mandate.

“When you’re backed up by a city mandate, you have the support of the council and other community members behind you … which empowers businesses to keep their employees safe, to keep their customers safe,” Leighton said.

Councilor Katherine Lewis cited economic concerns with the heightened transmission rate due to the omicron variant as a reason she supports a mandate.

“People get sick, even if they’re not in the hospital, not in the ICU, but sick at home waiting to recover and can’t go to work,” Lewis said. “That has had a multiplier effect, and I think that will continue.”

She compared wearing a mask to using a seatbelt. While a mask doesn’t guarantee the wearer will not be infected, it helps, she said.

Councilors were also in favor of providing masks and mask signs for businesses. While mask distribution is expected to take some time, the signs will be available sooner.

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