Portland’s call for surrounding communities to join the city in issuing emergency stay-at-home orders for residents in response to the coronavirus pandemic has so far produced mixed results.
“The vast majority of the positive cases are happening right here (in southern Maine),” City Manager Jon Jennings said March 24 when he issued the city’s order. “For us, we have to take even further action, and that’s why we’re asking other cities and towns to join us in implementing many of the measures that we’re proposing today.”
Portland’s emergency order, extended by the City Council this week to April 27, requires residents to stay at home, except to obtain essential goods and services, or face a $500 fine. It specifies 31 essential services and allows several exceptions including exercise and walking dogs, or moving to a new residence.
Since then South Portland has followed suit, but other municipalities have stopped short of issuing orders with fines. Some officials said it is unnecessary in their communities, while others raised concerns about the difficulty of enforcement and the possibility that such orders would lead to increases in child abuse and domestic violence.
Many called for state or county orders to avoid a patchwork of regulations in the region.
When asked if the Cumberland County commissioners were considering such an order, Travis Kennedy, director of public affairs for the county, said that while the County Charter allows the commissioners to pass an emergency declaration, state and local governance could overrule the county.
“Our concern is that such an action would create confusion without having a practical effect,” Kennedy said.
The commissioners scheduled an online meeting for Wednesday, April 1, to consider an emergency declaration. Kennedy said this would codify internal policies about facility access and remote working, but would not impact the constituency outside of the organization.
At a March 26 meeting of the Greater Portland Council of Governments Metro Regional Council the consensus was to push for Gov. Janet Mills to issue a stay-at-home order for Cumberland County, Westbrook Mayor Michael Foley said.
Foley said one reason he supports that approach is that the state has the benefit of epidemiologists and other expert advisers to help make such decisions while individual municipalities do not.
When the state’s first death from COVID-19 was revealed at a press conference the next day, Mills did not order residents to stay home, but strongly urged them to do so.
“Please, please, stay home,” the governor said. “Stay home as much as you possibly can, please. Wash your hands frequently, use disinfectant, and stay home.”
Secondary impacts were a concern at Cape Elizabeth’s Town Council meeting March 25. Councilors settled on a declaration that “strongly urged” residents to stay at home except to conduct essential business.
Police Chief Paul Fenton said he preferred officers to play an educational role, and that an order could be taken as an encroachment on civil liberties, leading some people to challenge officers. He also raised concerns about increases in domestic violence.
“When people are confined to the same house at the same time you see a rise in stress, you see a rise in (domestic abuse) and family issues,” Fenton said.
Councilor Penny Jordan agreed. “I don’t want to make a decision that puts a person at risk of violence in their home,” she said, “and Cape Elizabeth is not immune to that.”
A request to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services for data on the number of recent reports of child abuse received by DHHS was not responded to by press time, but a staff person at the Child Protective Intake Unit said call volume was “crazy low right now.”
She attributed this to the closure of schools and suspension of non-essential medical visits, meaning children are not being seen by mandated reporters. However, the times the intake unit does get calls, she said, it is more likely to be because a child has actually been hurt.
Jordan also argued that the residents of Cape Elizabeth understood the need for social distancing without being required to stay at home.
“Many of the citizens are college graduates, doctors and lawyers. Therefore I make the assumption that we all understand those things,” she said. “I cannot support in a community like Cape Elizabeth that is intelligent, educated people, that we need to tell them what to do.”
Foley, the Westbrook mayor, said his city is not considering a stay-at-home order because his team felt it would be unnecessary. He said the city closed its park structures and athletic fields and the governor closed non-essential businesses and restaurants, so there isn’t anywhere for people to go to congregate.
“I really do think people are going out of their way to try and respect what the governor has requested, for people to stay home if they can,” he said. “She closed additional workplaces as part of her order and we didn’t feel the need to take it much further. Westbrook only has four cases (of COVID-19) and those are fairly isolated.”
He said an emergency order would be better coming from the governor, who has the benefit of epidemiologists and the data to inform such a decision.
South Portland City Manager Scott Morelli issued a stay-at-home order on March 26, using his powers under the state of emergency extended by the City Council in a March 25 online meeting. He urged surrounding communities to do the same.
“As the second-largest community in southern Maine, and likely the densest community in all of the state, I believe the regulations issued (March 25) will help prevent the spread of the coronavirus in South Portland and our region,” Morelli said. “With similar efforts in Portland, and other communities considering the same, together we can make a significant impact on flattening the curve and not overwhelming our first responders and medical professionals.”
The order did not specify fines, but noted the City Charter allows for fines between $100 and $1,000 for violations. Other measures in the order include a prohibition on the use of playground and outdoor fitness equipment at city parks, beaches, and outdoor recreation facilities; restrictions on visitors to senior care facilities, and a prohibition on the use of reusable shopping bags at all retail establishments.
When Morelli received input from councilors and staff March 25, some spoke strongly for the need for drastic action, but not all felt that an order was the right move.
“There are people coming to Maine that are more exposed than we are, they could be transmitting this really quickly,” Councilor Katelyn Bruzgo said. “I think that doing something along the lines of what Portland did could help us and could save a lot of people.”
South Portland Fire Chief James Wilson said that when considering the secondary effects that Mills referenced in her memo of a stay-at-home order, “the reward may not exceed what the cost is.”
South Portland Police Chief Timothy Sheehan said he would prefer the police to play an educational role and work with the community, rather than authoritatively enforcing an order.
“I’m proud of the South Portland police officers because they have had to adapt completely to a new style of policing, and the community because we’ve thrown a lot at them,” Sheehan said, noting that residents have been good at practicing social distancing when officers respond to domestic calls and informing them of any sick household members.
Falmouth – where at least seven residents of the OceanView senior living community have tested positively for COVID-19 – did not declare a state of emergency because some town councilors did not believe emergency conditions were present.
“We are a free people and an emergency should be declared only when the government is not able to operate,” Councilor Jay Trickett said at a March 27 meeting, noting that an emergency council meeting with a quorum was convened online with 24 hours notice.
The council supported Chairwoman Amy Kuhn having a proclamation at the ready, which could be put into effect without a council vote if emergency conditions do arise.
Councilors also weighed in on the possibility of a stay-at-home order if an emergency is declared. Councilor Hope Cahan urged Kuhn to do so to communicate the seriousness of the threat of the virus and the importance of social distancing, arguing that it would be worth it if the measure saves even one life.
Trickett opposed a stay-at-home order, saying the town lacked localized data on cases and community spread that could inform their decisions.
Kuhn agreed. “I don’t support an order with fines and with police enforcement,” she said.
But this may change, and the council planned to reassess in a few days.
“I think all the surrounding towns are continuing to look at this question in most cases, several times per day based on new information as it becomes available,” Kuhn said.