Portland delays enforcement of restrictions on nonessential businesses 

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After an outcry from business owners over restrictions on their operations during the coronavirus pandemic, the City Council on Monday decided not to enforce some restrictions for at least a week.

During the remote emergency workshop, all councilors supported deferring enforcement until their next regularly scheduled meeting on April 27, when they will consider whether to extend the city’s stay-at-home order.

The temporary action allows nonessential business activity, including shipping, contactless delivery and curbside pickup, to fulfill online and phone orders until the council makes changes to the city’s state of emergency and stay-at-home orders.

In a press release, Mayor Kate Snyder said the city has been “aggressively cautious” to curtail the spread of COVID-19. Snyder said the city did not change the language or interpretation of the stay-at-home order for non-essential businesses.

The Portland City Council, meeting via Zoom on April 20, temporarily delayed restrictions on some nonessential businesses. (Portland Phoenix/Colin Ellis)

But she also admitted there was confusion over the rules in a FAQ the city released last week.

“The rules have been the same since March 16,” Snyder said prior to the workshop. “However, we understand that intent has been interpreted differently, which is why we are calling an emergency workshop to further discuss our order and ensure clarity for the local business community going forward.”

City Manager Jon Jennings also said city staff would allow certain business activities for nonessential services until the council made any changes to the emergency orders. 

‘A lot of uncertainty’

During Monday’s workshop, Snyder said while the city had not amended or adopted new policy, the rules were being interpreted in various ways. Because of that the restrictions were not enforced over the weekend and councilors agreed to continue that way for another week.

Councilors disagree, however, about precautions people should have to take if they are permitted to go back to work.

Councilor Spencer Thibodeau said he believes the city’s first stay-at-home order for residents was the right one, to “stay home full stop, period.”

But he said with guidance from essential businesses, the city has learned a lot. He said he hopes nonessential businesses can provide touch-free shipping; that employees who do work will wear gloves and masks, and that this is not a call for all nonessential business employees to return to work.

“I get it, people are restless, it’s getting nicer,” Thibodeau said. “But we have to understand what we’re doing is working.”

Other councilors had a more lenient view of the restrictions.

Councilor Belinda Ray said she didn’t see the need to mandate gloves and masks, assuming there is only one person in a business or two with appropriate distance between them. Ray said she would also ask on April 27 to ease restrictions on construction activity.

Councilor Kim Cook, who said she would propose having the city’s restrictions on nonessential businesses mirror Gov. Janet Mills’ state order, noted the council has discussed things like curbside pickup several times.

“I’m pretty comfortable relying on Gov. Mills and (Maine Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Executive Director) Dr. (Nirav) Shah and their team,” she said.

Councilor Tae Chong said what’s happened in the city is “kind of the perfect storm,” in that the federal government has not done enough to help small local businesses. He said he would like to see blanket protocols for businesses to follow in order to operate safely, such as he has seen for real estate businesses that provide virtual showings of homes.

“We know this virus impacts congested areas more than any other place,” he said. He added Massachusetts has become a hotspot, and “Boston is closer to us than Bangor.”

Councilor Justin Costa said the council realizes this is a challenging situation, and as a community there will be regular conversations on how things progress.

“The only thing we’re certain of is there’s a lot of uncertainty,” he said.

Costa echoed Thibodeau’s assertion that the city made the right decisions early, but said a lot has been learned since the first curfew and stay-at-home orders were issued. In addition to being disappointed in support from the federal government, he said the city has learned a large number of people were not complying with parts of the nonessential business orders, such as the restrictions on shipping.

“We have to admit this has clearly been a reality and factor that in,” Costa said. “We all understand the pressure this puts on local business.”

He said allowing leeway is “the best way forward at this time.”

“What’s most important is we don’t lose sight of the fact we are in this as one community,” he said. “We all have to be on the same page that the overwhelming principle is to stay home as much as possible.”

The council did not accept public comments during the workshop.

Snyder said the city has to be willing to pivot, while keeping in mind the decisions being made are for the public health. She said she understands people will have to order items like books, and wants to make sure people can do so through local businesses.

“I don’t think any of us ever lost track of the impact these decisions have on our local economy, the national economy or the global economy,” she said.

Local impacts, penalties

According to the FAQ the city issued following the council’s April 14 meeting, essential businesses include grocery stores, convenience stores and gas stations, office supply stores, post offices, laundry centers, hotels, banks and several others.

Any stores not explicitly listed as essential are considered nonessential.

The FAQ states a nonessential business can’t provide curbside pickup or ship products, even though the state still allows shipping. It states those businesses cannot have employees at work, even if they are 6 feet apart from each other. The list does say employees can continue to work remotely.

If someone is caught violating the state order, they could be charged with a class E crime, which comes with up to six months in jail and up to a $1,000 fine. A person caught violating the city order could face a $500 penalty, as well as suspension or loss of their business license.

Monday’s workshop came on the same day protesters in Augusta rallied against the statewide stay-at-home order. About 300 people were outside the Statehouse, many ignoring the 6-foot social distancing recommendations, mimicking similar protests around the country.

Mary Alice Scott, executive director of Portland Buy Local, said while the city’s announcement last week was not actually a policy change, the news that nonessential businesses weren’t supposed to be offering shipping services hit hard.

She said this distinction was “very surprising,” since the language of the policy as written wasn’t clear that these businesses couldn’t offer such services. Essentially, she said, it would allow businesses to have someone go into their building to pay bills or rent, but not allow them to make money for such payments.

“As soon as it came out there was a deluge of members reaching out and expressing concern,” Scott said.

She commended the city for responding quickly to the concerns of businesses.

Scott said J.P. Morgan released a survey severtal years ago that revealed the average retailer only has about 19 days’ worth of cash on hand.

“So, to go 20 days with zero income means they’re done,” she said.

Portland Buy Local is advocating for federal grant programs to help these smaller businesses pay their bills, although many such funding sources have dried up.

“They need to be able to make a little bit of income to make sure their business doesn’t permanently close,” Scott said.

She said Portland Buy Local is in communication with its members, and City Hall, to try to prevent panic.

“The businesses who are our members are the smaller mom-and-pop shops who are the ones getting the least amount of benefits from the federal government,” Scott said. “So it’s fundamental if we want our community to continue to be a thriving and unique and lovely place to live and work, we have to encourage the federal government to support these types of businesses and work with local and state government to allow them to do the bare minimum, while maintaining public safety.”

Divided council enacts restrictions on unleashed dogs

While the orders surrounding nonessential businesses drew the most attention, the Portland City Council made a few other housekeeping decisions during its April 14 remote meeting.

Councilors enacted new requirements for dogs to be leashed on public property while a stay-at-home order is in effect during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The restriction, which came over the objections of dog owners who live in the Baxter Woods area, require dogs to be leashed from 10 a.m.-5 p.m.

The city previously allowed dogs to be off leash, but under voice control, in Baxter Woods, portions of the Eastern Promenade, Capisic Pond Park, at city dog parks and a few other areas.

The city’s Sustainability and Transportation Committee had recommended a leash law for Baxter Woods, which would have been enforced at all times from April-July and from 9 a.m.-3 p.m. the rest of the year. Currently, dogs are allowed to be off-leash under voice control whenever the park is open. Off-leash dogs would also be prohibited in a 5.5-acre habitat restoration area within the 32-acre park between Forest and Stevens avenues. 

The more restrictive proposal came from Councilor Kim Cook, who wanted an across-the-board leash restriction. Councilor Pious Ali proposed a compromise to limit the hours. Cook had said the leash restrictions would help enforce social distancing between people who are out walking their dogs.

The council voted 5-4 to enact the restrictions; Councilors Jill Duson, Belinda Ray, Tae Chong, Cook and Ali voted in favor, while Councilors Nick Mavodones, Justin Costa, Spencer Thibodeau and Mayor Kate Snyder were opposed.

The Council also rejected a proposal that would have closed dog parks.

Councilors postponed votes on two proposals regarding short-term housing rentals.

The first would have allowed rental owners to obtain registration fee refunds if they lease to tenants for a year, as opposed to the 30 days or fewer that define a short-term rental. Portland has a fee system that starts at $100 for short-term rentals, but owners with multiple properties can spend considerably more.

The second proposal would have given owners an additional $1,000 if they sign a lease of at least a year with a tenant using a Section 8 housing voucher or General Assistance.

The next remote council meeting is scheduled for Monday, April 27.

— Colin Ellis