Portland councilors extend stay-at-home order, require masks for some workers

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City councilors on April 27 extended Portland’s coronavirus stay-at-home order for two weeks.

During the five-hour remote meeting, the City Council attached half a dozen amendments to the order, including a requirement that workers who interact with the public wear face masks or face coverings.

Exclusions apply to people with medical reasons not to wear masks and employees in nonessential businesses who are either working alone or who can maintain an appropriate 6-foot distance from other employees.

“This codifies everything we’re doing,” Councilor Spencer Thibodeau, who proposed the amendment, said. “If you can’t maintain that 6-foot distance, you should be wearing that covering.”

Portland city councilors take part in a remote meeting Monday, April 27, where they amended and extended the city’s stay-at-home order. (Portland Phoenix/Colin Ellis)

The council was divided on this amendment, which passed 5-4. Thibodeau, Mayor Kate Snyder, and Councilors Nick Mavodones, Tae Chong, and Jill Duson supported it; Councilors Kim Cook, Belinda Ray, Pious Ali, and Justin Costa were opposed.

Cook said she wanted to hear from the city’s Public Health Department and guidance from the Centers for Disease Control. She tried unsuccessfully to postpone a vote on the amendment until the council’s next meeting on May 4.

Thibodeau’s amendment takes effect Thursday, April 30. Snyder said this will give the city a few days to see how the amendment works before the council meets again on May 4, when councilors can adjust the amendment if it proves to be challenging.  

The city’s stay-at-home order was slated to expire Monday. Ray proposed only extending the order until the May 4 meeting, but that was defeated 6-3, with Ray, Cook, and Ali in the minority. Mavodones said he preferred extending the order for a longer period of time “rather than a whole new program every time we meet.”

Other than Thibodeau’s amendment on masks, the remaining amendments councilors passed moved the city to more closely align with state requirements, which in general are less restrictive.

“We’ve lessened things in a lot of ways,” Mavodones said. “(Thibodeau’s amendment) actually tightens things up. This is a sensible and prudent approach.”

The council unanimously passed an amendment by Cook that provides a $1,000 incentive from the city’s Housing Trust Fund for up to 25 owners of short-term rental housing units who provide long-term housing to low-income residents using programs like Section 8 or General Assistance.

Chong said he’d like to revisit this amendment in a month or two to see if any property owners applied. He said he wasn’t sure if a $1,000 payment would be worth it to property owners to give up offering their vacation rentals.

“It’s a great concept and a good pilot project,” Chong said.

Duson proposed removing language that designates gun shops as an essential city service. She said she did not believe there were any gun shops in Portland, so the language wasn’t necessary.

“We’ve done a lot in terms of gun control policies, and those have all been tied to public health reasons,” she said.

The measure passed 7-2, with Costa and Thibodeau opposed.

Ray proposed easing construction regulations during the coronavirus pandemic. She said the state has deemed construction an essential service, and the city allowing construction of projects that received permits prior to March 25, but is not issuing new permits.

Ray said March 25 is an arbitrary date that places an unfair burden on residents who want to take on construction projects at their own homes.

Mavodones expressed concerns about the amendment, saying while he did support it, he wasn’t sure how the city could enforce construction workers wearing masks and maintain appropriate physical distancing while on work sites.

“I understand most businesses are good and follow the rules, and sometimes there’s a lack of clarity,” he said, adding the city needs to ensure the message gets out about what is required of any worker in the public. “We can’t have people telling us they didn’t understand the rules.”

Ray’s amendment passed 8-1, with Costa as the lone opponent. He said this issue has been discussed several times, and he thought it needed to be re-evaluated on a weekly basis.

“We’re starting to feel like we’re seeing the proverbial light at the end of the proverbial tunnel,” he said. “Maybe in the next week or two I’ll support loosening restrictions. But for now I’ll stick with the rule we have in place.”

Ray and Cook proposed an amendment to have Portland mirror the state’s approach to nonessential businesses, letting them operate through no-contact means. Ray said this would still mean nonessential businesses are closed, but they could offer services like shipping, delivery, and curbside pickup.

The city received some criticism earlier this month, when it released an information sheet that indicated nonessential businesses could not offer shipping or curbside pickup, although several businesses were already doing that. Councilors walked back those restrictions in a workshop last week.

Mary Alice Scott, director of Portland Buy Local, spoke to the council earlier in the meeting in support of the amendment. She said a study showed Maine’s economy would be severely impacted by the pandemic because it relies heavily on tourism. Additionally, with so many small businesses and an aging population, she said the state could suffer even more.

“Obviously we understand restaurants are in dire straits, but retailers are not that far behind,” Scott said.

She said a local study showed a third of businesses are not getting any support from their landlords during the crisis. On average, Scott said, a small business only has a cash buffer of 19 days, which has come and gone.

“The local business community is part of what really shapes the fabric of what makes Portland unique,” she said.

The amendment passed unanimously.

A final measure proposed by Cook also passed unanimously. It prohibits real estate activities in a unit already occupied by a tenant and aligns the city with the state.

Councilors heard a variety of public comments prior to voting on the amendments.

“Please keep the stay-at-home order in place,” resident Kerry Siedell said. “I work on the front lines at Walgreen’s and I’d feel safer knowing we have the stay-at-home order.”

Bill Weber called for “deliberate and conservative action.” He said he didn’t see it as “over burdensome” to require workers and customers to wear masks when going into grocery stores.

“We all want a safe reopening of our economy,” Weber said. “But I don’t think we can afford to do it in a non-conservative manner.”

But Steven Scharf said the city should end the lockdown as soon as possible and shouldn’t be placing more restrictions on businesses.