Merrill Auditorium sign
A sign outside Merrill Auditorium in Portland advises visitors about health and safety protocols required in the venue, including the use of face masks and proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test. (Portland Phoenix/Colin Ellis)
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It’s common throughout Portland, at shops and businesses, restaurants and bars, on city property, and in public-facing establishments: Masks are recommended.

While there are no state or federal requirements to wear masks in public places, signs recommending the use of masks are common as winter sets in and the U.S. braces for the Omicron variant of COVID-19.

In Maine, more than 121,000 people have had the virus and more than 1,300 have died from it. 

All Portland city facilities, ranging from the Ocean Gateway terminal to Merrill Auditorium to City Hall, require visitors to wear masks. Public transportation, including Casco Bay ferries and Metro buses, also requires masking.

The City Council refused to institute a public mask mandate earlier this fall, opting instead for an education campaign. But that could change as the makeup of the council changes this week.

Andrew Zarro
Portland City Councilor Andrew Zarro at his Little Woodfords coffee shop on Congress Street. (Portland Phoenix/Elizabeth Clemente)

‘Actions speak louder than words’

Councilor Andrew Zarro, a small business owner who proposed the failed mandate, said he’s been working with the mayor and acting city manager to resurrect the discussion. Last week, for example, the city announced it would give masks to local businesses, something former City Manager Jon Jennings had opposed.

Zarro said the council conversation when the mask mandate proposal was defeated revolved around personal responsibility and allowing businesses to be autonomous. But he said the number of new cases and deaths is now “worse than they ever were.”

“With Omicron, we don’t know a lot,” he said. “… The numbers we’re seeing are not going down. So all of that to say, I was optimistic we would be in a different place. But that conversation, whether or not we want to have it, we need to. It’s our obligation, we are the stewards of the city. The council did say we would revisit this, and I would expect that to happen soon.”

Zarro also noted the City Council continues to meet remotely because of the pandemic, and if that state of emergency continues, hazard pay will be triggered on Jan. 1.

Hazard pay was part of a referendum approved by voters, increasing the minimum wage from $12 an hour to $15 an hour over three years beginning in January 2022. A provision of that ordinance states that in a time of emergency, such as the pandemic, the rate becomes 1.5 times higher than the regular minimum wage.

Councilors previously said they were not comfortable issuing a citywide mask mandate without more Portland-specific data from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and Zarro said that would be a good place to restart the conversation.

He did not commit to making a new proposal for a mask mandate and said he is not interested in a citywide vaccine mandate. But he did say it is important for residents to be vaccinated and boosted as soon as possible.

“Actions speak louder than words,” Zarro said. “We need to continue to remind our community.”

New councilors

The mask mandate proposal, which initially appeared to have the support needed to be enacted, failed in a deadlocked 4-4 vote. Nothing prevents a new proposal from returning to the council, since any councilor is permitted to bring an item up for discussion. 

A mask mandate would likely have a better chance of succeeding this time. New Councilors Victoria Pelletier, Roberto Rodriguez, and Anna Trevorrow all said during the campaign they would have supported the mandate. Rodriguez and Trevorrow replace councilors who voted against the mandate when it was considered in October.

Mayor Kate Snyder, who voted against the mandate, wouldn’t say whether she would support a new mandate proposal. She said she has not received any formal requests from councilors to put a mandate on the council’s Dec. 20 agenda. 

Snyder said she is more focused on getting the council back to in-person meetings. She said there was some discussion of trying to have the Dec. 6 inauguration in person, but staff advised aiming for a January return to City Hall meetings.

“We’ll obviously take a look at that in the next couple of weeks to gauge people’s interest to get back to in-person meetings,” Snyder said.

Snyder said Portland is in a better place than it was a year ago before vaccines became available. So now, if a person is vaccinated and exposed to someone with the virus, they are advised to wear masks, but they don’t have to isolate.

But she also acknowledged there is uncertainty as a result of the Omicron variant.

“How the vaccinated and the rate of vaccination and showing proof of vaccination interact with a mandatory mask requirement is something everybody is grappling with now,” Snyder said.

‘Mask up’

In addition to Zarro, Councilors Pious Ali, Tae Chong, and April Fournier voted for the mandate in October.

Chong said he supports wearing masks but doesn’t think the council should reconsider a mask mandate because enforcement would be a challenge. He said the city should instead continue to emphasize public education and encourage voluntary masking. 

Portland City Councilor Tae Chong

“It comes down to people who are unvaccinated getting vaccinated,” Chong said. “It comes down to people who aren’t masked to mask up. I’m vaccinated, I’m getting my booster shot next week, and I mask up everywhere I go. I sit outside where I can. That’s what you’ve got to do with personal responsibility.”

Ali said he would support having the mask-mandate conversation if another councilor makes the proposal. He noted the city’s Health and Human Services Department has already recommended wearing masks, and the city’s distribution of masks to businesses, and said if the number of cases continues to rise – and especially with the new variant – he would support a mask requirement.

He also said he would support a requirement to show vaccination status before going into public places.

“The safety of our business community, the safety of our residents, and the safety of those who visit the city of Portland are important to me,” Ali said. “I’m worried about the next few weeks.”

The importance of vaccination

In Maine, which for most of the pandemic boasted considerably lower numbers than the rest of the U.S., COVID-19 cases have surged this fall. The state recently registered the 22nd highest number of cases per capita in the country.

According to the Maine CDC, Maine has a case rate of just over 919 per 10,000 people.

Hospitalizations continue to trend upward, too. As of Monday, the Maine CDC reported 361 people in the state were hospitalized with the virus. Of those, 112 were in intensive care and 60 were on ventilators. Dr. Nirav Shah, the CDC director, said those were record numbers.

Gov. Janet Mills, however, recently doubled down on her decision not to enact a statewide mask mandate or other restrictions. Maine has promoted guidelines from the U.S. CDC, that essentially recommend masking in areas that meet a high transmission threshold – which includes all Maine counties.

In an interview, Dr. Dora Anne Mills, chief health improvement officer at MaineHealth and former director of the Maine CDC, said the strongest approach against the virus and its variants remains being vaccinated and getting a booster shot.

She said the booster has been shown to achieve higher immunity against the virus than just the first two shots.

Mills, the governor’s sister, said it’s also important to make sure eligible children get vaccinated. Recently, she said, 62 percent of all new cases were people under the age of 20.

“Our young people are the major transmitters of this,” she said.

Dr. Dora Anne Mills
Dr. Dora Anne Mills, chief health improvement officer at MaineHealth. (Courtesy MaineHealth)

Other tools

Mills said masking remains an important tool, too. She said masking when indoors, as well as masking in crowded outdoor areas where you’re close to others, will likely remain a CDC recommendation “for a while.”

Distancing up to 6 feet when possible and improved ventilation are also important tools. Mills said when gathering together for the holidays, even just opening a window can improve the ventilation.

While more cost-prohibitive, Mills said rapid testing for people who do not live in the household, such as dinner guests or extended family, is a strong tool.

Finally, she said, regular hygiene, such as washing your hands and covering your nose and mouth when you cough, are important ways to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Mills said rural parts of the state, where fewer people are vaccinated, continue to be Maine’s highest transmission areas. She wrote in November that nearly 40 percent of Mainers in rural areas – specifically Piscataquis, Somerset, Franklin, and Oxford counties –are not vaccinated, compared with just 18 percent of Cumberland County being unvaccinated.

Portland and its suburbs have roughly a 99 percent vaccination rate, Mills said, compared to more rural parts of the county where that statistic is closer to 85 percent.

She said while it is possible to contract and transmit the virus even when fully vaccinated, most transmission is driven by the unvaccinated.

Mills said she wouldn’t take a stance on whether Portland or other municipalities should enact mask mandates or similar requirements. However, she said both the Maine CDC and U.S. CDC have recommended masking when indoors or in outdoor settings with people from outside your household.

“I mask in every store I go to,” Mills said.

Even with these tools, however, she is still worried about the next few weeks, especially now that Omicron has appeared. She said the best ways to keep hospitals from being overburdened is to be vaccinated, and practice masking, distancing, and ventilation.

“We’re in a much better place than we were a week ago,” Mills said, “but I’m worried about the next few weeks.”

Casco Bay Lines terminal
Signs at the Casco Bay Lines terminal on Commercial Street advise riders that face masks are still required by federal law. (Portland Phoenix/Colin Ellis)

‘It’s about keeping the community safe’

Around the country, mask mandates are a local tool used by many municipalities.

Denver, Colorado, just adopted an indoor mask mandate for the holiday season. Illinois has a statewide mandate. Boston has a citywide mandate. Vermont Gov. Phil Scott signed a bill last week that permits local mask mandates. And last week, Burlington, Vermont, passed a mask mandate for most buildings open to the public.

In Portland, there are some businesses that either require or strongly recommend masking.

Hunt & Alpine, a restaurant on Market Street, continues to ask indoor patrons to be fully vaccinated and masked. Print Bookstore on Congress Street reinstated the requirement for in-store shopping following the rise in COVID-19 cases. Bao Bao Dumpling House on Spring Street also requires patrons to be masked when not actively eating or drinking. The Bearded Lady’s Jewel Box, a cocktail bar on Congress Street, requires masks regardless of vaccination status.

Hunt & Alpine co-owner Briana Volk said the mask and vaccine requirements have worked out well at Hunt and Alpine.

“We did get people who get a little huffy and refuse to come in, and great, I don’t want you in my business if you make people unsafe,” Volk said.

Volk said she hopes the new City Council will revisit the mask mandate, that it should be a high priority. She said she talks to small business owners and hospitality workers all the time who support mask requirements and want to see a citywide mandate.

She said her customers have supported their requirements, with many saying they specifically continue to come in because the requirements are in place to keep people safe.

“My top priority as a restaurant owner is to keep people safe and healthy,” Volk said. “That comes down to not just cooking the food properly and making sure people aren’t overserved, but also not getting people sick when there’s a pandemic going on.”