Something is different on the streets of Portland: People are shedding their masks.
And pretty soon, if not already, that fresh-faced approach will start to creep indoors.
Following Gov. Janet Mills’ announcement earlier this month, per guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, fully vaccinated Maine residents are no longer required to wear face coverings in most places – including willing indoor spots, effectively putting an end to the year-long pandemic requirement.
Mills also rescinded restrictions on gathering sizes, both indoors and outdoors, effectively allowing social events like concerts, live performances, and movies to return to full capacity.
But many stores, restaurants, and businesses in the city are uncomfortable with the change.
Several national chains, including Walmart, Walgreens, Target, Chipotle, BJ’s Wholesale, CVS, Home Depot, Kohl’s, and Starbucks announced relaxed mask restrictions nationally. Grocery stores like Trader Joe’s and Hannaford Bros. announced they would also follow CDC guidelines and ease mask requirements.
The issue with the new guidelines, no matter how cathartic it might feel to believe the pandemic has reached an endpoint, is how genuine and honest people not wearing masks into stores and restaurants will be.
Although Maine is among the national leaders in the percentage of its population vaccinated against COVID-19, barely 40 percent of the country has been fully vaccinated. The New York Times also recently posited that the U.S. may never reach herd immunity, a form of indirect protection from the disease that occurs when a sufficient percentage of a population has become immune to it, either by vaccine or by exposure.
Both the Portland Exposition Building and Scarborough Downs mass vaccination sites recently closed, as emphasis shifts to more localized distribution through pharmacies and medical practices.
The new eased mask requirements, meanwhile, are proving to be a curious subject.
Print bookstore at Congress and India streets, for example, will continue to require face coverings for customers in the store. Print took one of the more cautious approaches to the pandemic, closing to the public for about a year, and instead offering curbside pickup. It recently began allowing customers back into the store by appointment.
Owner Josh Christie said the new regulations are “largely immaterial to us at the moment,” since the store isn’t fully open. By not letting people come in without an appointment to browse, he said, the stress on employees has been reduced.
Christie said masks will still be required for employees, customers with appointments, and for people picking up curbside. He said while the new guidance suggests the state is moving in the right direction, it “didn’t create a mechanism for us to know who is vaccinated.”
Christie said the store didn’t want to put staff in a position of having to police customers, especially when masks are a “minor inconvenience.” He recently posted a photo on Twitter of a sign outside the bookstore that tells patrons masks are required. “The more people argue,” he said in the post, “the larger the signs will be.”
Christie said the plan is to reopen Print to the public around July 4, although it won’t immediately be back to seven days a week.
“We will probably still require masks,” he said, since the store sells children’s books and the vaccine is still only available for adolescents 12 and older.
Other business owners, however, are planning to end their mask requirements.
Peter Bissell, of Bissell Brothers Brewing at Thompson’s Point and the High Roller Lobster Co. on Exchange Street, said both businesses will follow the latest state and federal guidelines.
He said staff at both spots were encouraged to be vaccinated early, and won’t be required to wear masks. However, he said, if employees feel more comfortable wearing masks, they will be allowed to do so.
“This isn’t an anti-masking thing,” Bissell said. “We’re not going to be enforcing anything beyond what the local health agencies have prescribed.”
He said the brewery will reopen Memorial Day weekend, and he doesn’t want to put staff in a position of having to police customers about masks.
“If you’re a sane adult,” Bissell said, “you should have gotten the shot by now.”
Briana Volk, co-owner of Portland Hunt & Alpine Club on Market Street, is taking a very cautious approach. The bar is still requiring patrons to wear masks, and currently only offers outdoor seating. Volk tweeted that the business planned to wait until “the numbers are down” and “everyone is two weeks out” before changing its current model.
“My staff gets final say on this one,” she tweeted. “It’s up to them.”
Mary Alice Scott, executive director of Portland Buy Local, said it’s clear business owners and employees don’t want to be in charge of public health. She said the new rules around masks put the onus of responsibility onto businesses, which is challenging.
“I think there are a lot of local businesses who will continue to have a mask mandate for the foreseeable future,” Scott said. “If the rule is you’re vaccinated and you don’t have to wear a mask, I don’t know of any local business that wants to check those statuses. It’s simpler to say we’ll stay with the mandate so we don’t have to be the ones checking.”
Portland city officials announced updated safety protocols on May 21 for residents entering City Hall. While staff and the public will no longer be required to have their temperatures taken before entering the building, masks will still be required, even for individuals who are fully vaccinated.
City Hall and other city buildings are open to the public for limited services, although the treasury office is still by appointment only. The city clerk’s office and Parking Department are both accepting walk-ins, while most other services are still operating virtually.
City spokesperson Jessica Grondin said in a press release this is an “interim step in the right direction” and asked for the public’s patience and compliance with the rules.
“While we look forward to the time when we can be back to our buildings being fully open,” Grondin said, “we will only do that when it is entirely safe to do so.”