The State Theatre in Portland sends a message to the few drivers and pedestrians passing by last week on Congress Street. (Courtesy Stephen Young)
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Portland officials on Tuesday ordered residents to remain home and cease all non-essential business in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. 

The emergency stay-at-home order takes effect Wednesday, March 25, at 5 p.m., and will last for five days. City Manager Jon Jennings said the City Council will extend the order at a special meeting Monday, March 30.

The 3 p.m. announcement immediately followed Gov. Janet Mills’ mandate that all non-essential public-facing businesses close for the next two weeks, and for essential businesses to limit the number of employees at their businesses. She said she did not yet see the need for a statewide shelter in place order.

“Stay away from other people,” Mills said.

Portland Mayor Kate Snyder said the message of the city order, which goes farther than Mills’ statewide mandate, is that residents should stay home “unless you have essential business that needs to be conducted.” 

“With 90 of 118 confirmed cases in southern Maine, we are obligated to take additional measures to protect public health,” Snyder said.

Portland City Hall is closed to the public to help control spread of coronavirus. (Portland Phoenix/Colin Ellis)

The city is requiring residents to remain in their homes unless they need essential services. Places like gyms, salons, and clothing stores, where more than 10 people can gather, are not considered essential. Residents are still allowed to go outside to walk, run, travel or exercise, Snyder emphasized, but must maintain social distancing practices. 

Essential services include grocery stores, restaurants providing only take-out or delivery of food, health-care facilities and pharmacies, banks, convenience stores, various home- and auto-repair companies, home-based care for seniors and those with disabilities, and others. A complete list of such services is on the city website.

Jennings said two employees of the city General Assistance office are among those who have tested positive for the virus and resulting in the closing of that office. He said GA services are still available remotely.

Jennings also said the business downturn caused by the pandemic response has had an impact on the city’s budget process. He called it a “complete collapse” in revenue projections for items including sales taxes and parking fees. 

“We have to start all over from a budgetary standpoint,” Jennings said, although he added “this is not the time” to focus on that. “We’ll get to that eventually, but there is no urgency to do that now.”

The number of Mainers believed to be infected by the novel coronavirus, a respiratory virus also known as COVID-19, has been increasing dramatically.

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said confirmed cases in Maine grew by 11 from Monday, with 74 of the total cases in Cumberland County.

Shah said some of these cases are the result of person-to-person transmission, or “community transmission.”

“We do anticipate there being further cases across the state,” he said, urging people in communities and counties where the disease has not been confirmed to behave as if it has been detected.

“An absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,” Shah said.

And while those cases continue to grow, so does the need for equipment for medical workers and first-responders – things like surgical masks and gloves. 

Shah earlier said his department is working to distribute tens of thousands of supply items around Maine, and more is coming from the federal government. But that equipment still isn’t enough.

He said the Maine CDC is looking into buying a new testing machine that requires a different chemical component than most testing machines for this virus. The more common chemical is in short supply, so switching to a different one could lead to increased testing capacity. Shah has said the two most important groups in need of testing are hospitalized patients, and medical workers and first-responders. 

Maine has also had more than 3,000 negative tests. Seven individuals have also recovered from COVID-19 under the U.S. Centers for Disease Control guidelines. Fifteen individuals have been hospitalized.

He emphasized that while the supplies from the federal government are important, they aren’t sufficient for Maine’s needs.

“It’s a start, but they’re not where they need to be yet,” Shah said.

Shah also stressed just how rapidly the virus can spread. On March 1, there were 89 cases in total in the United States. That number is now over 35,000. He said this illustrates the importance of physical distancing.

Medical supply needs

Shah said the Maine CDC will distribute approximately 22,000 pieces of medical equipment across the state beginning Monday, including 2,400 N95 masks, more than 8,000 surgical masks, nearly 2,000 face shields and 6,000 sets of gloves.

Shah said Maine has also requested further testing equipment from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but he didn’t know when it would arrive.

Bard Coffee on Middle Street advises potential customers that it is closed until further notice. (Portland Phoenix/Colin Ellis)

After Mills asked the federal government for more supplies, Shah reported Maine expects to add some 12,800 N95 masks, more than 30,000 procedure masks, approximately 5,800 face shields, 4,700 surgical gowns, and 16,800 gloves.

Shah also warned that the lower number of cases in Maine’s rural counties should not give residents false hope that the virus hasn’t spread to their communities. He urged Mainers to continue “physical distancing” while still remaining in contact with loved ones and friends during this time. 

“How you live your life today could affect the lives of others in your community tomorrow,” he said.

Shah has been promoting “physical distancing” rather than the previously prescribed “social distancing,” because he said it’s still important for people to keep their “social bonds as strong as ever.” He recommended phone calls, writing letters, and even virtual events, such as video conference dinner parties.

Shah acknowledged this is “uncharted territory,” and that no matter how sophisticated science had become, there are still more questions than answers about the virus. 

“In times of uncertainty and times of stress,” he said, “fear, anxiety, and frustration are completely normal responses. … I ask each of you to recognize you are not alone.”

Shah said anyone going through a mental health crisis amid this pandemic should seek help.

“People can be there for you, even if they are not there with you,” Shah said.

Shah also said Maine is still experiencing a shortage of donated blood and that at least for the time being it is still safe to donate blood, since collection sites are taking appropriate precautions.

The Maine CDC is in twice-daily contact with health-care systems to get up-to-date numbers on available items such as intensive-care unit beds, and Shah reported that there are now 77 ICU beds available in the state. He said Maine still has 248 ventilators currently available out of 301 in the state. 

The Maine CDC has asked for 300 additional ventilators from the federal government’s stockpile, which is providing the masks and gloves and other additional equipment. However, Shah said Maine may also look into other avenues to acquire ventilators.

Local responses

In addition to the stay-at-home order announced Tuesday, the Portland Public Schools had already announced schools will essentially be closed through April, although remote learning and meal programs will continue. The shutdown was originally slated to last through March 30, but Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana last week announced the closure will last through the April school break.

The marquee at the Nickelodeon Cinemas on Temple Street in Portland displays a simple message Monday, March 23. (Portland Phoenix/Colin Ellis)

That came after the city announced a curfew for restaurants, bars and some other businesses, and after Mills announced a statewide order for all bars and restaurants to close for dine-in customers for at least 14 days.

The city also issued an emergency order allowing stores to suspend charging a 5-cent fee on single-use carryout bags because reuseable bags that remain unwashed carry a greater likelihood of transferring the virus than the disposable single-use bags. Mills and the state Legislature have also delayed a statewide ban on plastic single-use bags until Jan. 15, 2021.

Jennings said the city would not be issuing parking tickets for time zones and expired meters for the foreseeable future, but will continue for illegal parking.  

The city also announced it is committed to continuing to work with the city’s homeless population. It will make available 12 isolation spaces that can accommodate up to 36 people in one of its family shelters. As of last week, this space has been used for five individuals, and four of those have tested negative.

“We have an emergency action plan in place that we’re following as we continue to provide emergency shelter and housing services to our clients,” said Kristen Dow, Director of the City’s Health and Human Services Department. “If the situation in our shelters required additional measures, we will respond accordingly. We are in communication with the Maine Health and Human Services Department about ideas that are being developed at the state level for additional homeless shelter space should it be required.”

Shah said while other states are issuing stay-at-home orders for citizens, he supports Mills’ current approach in closing only non-essential services. He said Maine, as a rural state, is in a different place than Manhattan.

But he again urged residents not to wait to prepare until after there is a confirmed case of the virus in their community. Since the incubation period for the virus can last up to 16 days, he said measuring who has been infected is difficult. He compared it to watching a live broadcast for information, only to find that the broadcast had actually been recorded two weeks earlier.

Shah urged Mainers to go about their lives as if the virus is already part of their community.

Snyder on Tuesday said city officials hope other nearby cities and towns will adopt measures similar to the emergency order issued by Portland.

“We hope we can flatten the curve in southern Maine, Cumberland County, and the city of Portland,” she said.

Portland Mayor Kate Snyder

Portland mayor pushes for no evictions during pandemic

After state and local orders for many non-essential businesses to close during the coronavirus pandemic, Portland Mayor Kate Snyder on Monday tried to reassure city residents they are safe from evictions for the time being.

Besides courts being closed, which means evictions are not being adjudicated, Snyder in a prepared statement said “I’d like to ask landlords for their cooperation during this time, and for several months following the recovery, to work with renters as we all manage our way through this crisis. It’s imperative to ensure that our residents are housed and protected, as many are facing unforeseen changes in their employment and income status.” 

Snyder said she spoke with Brit Vitalus, president of the Southern Maine Landlord Association, who told her communication between tenants and landlords is important.

“It’s critical that tenants and landlords are communicating with each other so that they can achieve agreement about how to weather the coming weeks and months together,” Vitalus said.

Snyder has asked for community commitments that align with guidance from the National Multifamily Housing Council. These include:

• Halting evictions for 90 days for those who can show they have been financially impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

• Not allowing rent increases for 90 days to help residents survive the crisis.

• Creating payment plans for residents unable to pay rent because of the outbreak, and waiving late fees for those residents.

• Identifying governmental and community resources to help residents get food, financial assistance and health care.

— Colin Ellis