Customers are asked to wear masks at Ferdinand on Congress Street. (Portland Phoenix/Elizabeth Clemente)
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In a reversal from its discussion two weeks ago, the Portland City Council Monday night effectively killed a proposed citywide mask mandate.

The vote was 4-4, with Mayor Kate Snyder and Councilors Belinda Ray, Mark Dion, and Nick Mavodones opposed. The measure will continue to come before the council as unfinished business, but unless any councilors change their minds, the result will be the same.

Ray attempted to postpone the question indefinitely after it was defeated, which would remove it from any future agenda, but that was also defeated 4-4. 

The council will face the possibility of more ties going forward, because Councilor Spencer Thibodeau resigned Sept. 19 to accept a job with the Biden administration. Although he did not attend Monday’s meeting, Thibodeau had said on Sept. 13 that he did not support the proposed mask mandate for indoor public spaces. 

Snyder said this was not an effort by the city to prioritize business interests over public health. She said she opposed the motion because there is no real mechanism for enforcing a mandate. The mayor, who had planned on supporting the mandate when it was first proposed two weeks ago, said a mask mandate would be more effective as a regional or state order.

“​​I’m not convinced the right path forward is for our local government to enforce a mandate that would not be enforceable,” Snyder said.

The proposed mandate, which Councilor Andrew Zarro first requested the council consider in early August, was discussed in a workshop on Sept. 8. Councilors seemed ready to take an emergency vote, but deferred until their Sept. 13 meeting and then postponed it to Sept. 20.

“I don’t want each municipality to decide (on individual mandates),” Zarro said. “But we know the current method isn’t working.”

After it was defeated Monday night, Zarro – a small business owner – said the council should reconsider the emergency provision that allows it to keep meeting remotely, because it is “incongruous” for councilors to say there isn’t a need for a mask mandate while also saying there is a need for remote meetings. 

“​​I think if we are comfortable saying we’re not 100 percent on mask mandates, if folks can govern themselves at their places of business, I think we owe it to ourselves to dissolve the emergency order and begin meeting in person again,” Zarro said. 

In the Sept. 13 meeting, several councilors who had originally supported the idea had a change of heart, and expressed concerns about the proposal. One concern was how little lead time an emergency mandate would give owners of local businesses, especially restaurant and fitness center operators who opposed the measure.

A second concern was that a mandate is the responsibility of the state, not the city. Some councilors echoed concerns from members of the public and business owners who theorized a mandate for Portland alone would just send customers to neighboring cities and towns.

Gov. Janet Mills, however, is unlikely to reverse the state’s current position and enact a statewide mandate. Mills has said the state will adopt U.S. Centers for Disease Control guidance, which recommends all people – vaccinated or not – wear masks in areas with high to substantial levels of transmission. Portland councilors said they are concerned about the lack of Portland-specific data, and didn’t want to defer only to Cumberland County data when making a decision.

“If there’s not a regional or state effort, I don’t think it’s a great benefit to us here in Portland,” Ray said. 

Lindsay Crete, a spokesperson for Mills, told the Phoenix that in addition to these recommendations on wearing masks, Maine continues to follow U.S. CDC guidance that all teachers, school staff, and students should be masked as well, regardless of vaccination or transmission levels.

“Right now, all Maine counties qualify as either having substantial or high levels of community transmission and the state recommends that people wear face coverings when in indoor public settings,” Crete said. “The administration also supports the right of municipalities to enact local face-covering requirements.”

Crete said while things like masks, capacity limits, and physical distancing were the only tools originally available, the availability of the vaccinations allowed Maine to transition to different requirements.

“The surge in cases and hospitalizations Maine is experiencing now is driven primarily by those who are not vaccinated,” Crete said. “Getting vaccinated remains the most effective way to reduce the spread of the virus and stem the tide of the pandemic, and we continue to urge all Maine people to roll up their sleeves and get their shot. It’s basic public health, personal responsibility, and common sense.”

The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention told the Phoenix the statement from Mills’ office also reflects its position.

While Mills has said she doesn’t have the authority to enact a statewide mask mandate, such a move is not without precedent. Seven states plus the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands have mask mandates for everyone.

The states are Hawaii, Illinois, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, and Washington. California, Connecticut, and New York have mask mandates for the unvaccinated.

Several cities have also enacted localized mandates. Boston, for example, requires everyone in a public, indoor setting to be masked.

Had it been enacted, the measure would have amended the city’s emergency proclamation for the coronavirus pandemic. It would require the use of masks by everyone over the age of 2 in public indoor spaces such as grocery and retail stores, restaurants, theaters, museums, gyms, and indoor recreation spaces. There would be exemptions for performers in a theater or diners while they are eating or drinking in a restaurant. 

The city’s Health and Human Services Department issued memos to City Manager Jon Jennings and the council, recommending the city return to universal masking.

Additionally, Maine Medical Center and Northern Lights Health sent a joint letter to the City Council, saying they supported universal masking.

“We urged Mainers to follow the evidence by getting vaccinated, masking while indoors, practicing social distancing, maintaining good hand hygiene, and reconsidering large indoor gatherings, especially if unmasked or unvaccinated people will be in attendance. We know that following these preventive measures has proven effective at reducing the spread of COVID-19,  and we continue to support taking these precautions because we all must do our part to save lives by limiting the spread of COVID-19, and reduce demand on our health care system,” their statement said.

The council’s discussion has occurred while COVID-19 cases in Maine have continued to surge in recent weeks. On Tuesday morning after the council’s vote, the Maine CDC reported 632 new cases over the weekend and Monday, and 20 additional deaths. Maine has now surpassed 1,000 deaths from the virus.

Jon Jennings
Portland City Manager Jon Jennings.

City manager search: ‘The most important decision we may make’

The Portland City Council will begin searching for a new city manager, but will also name an interim manager while that search goes on.

Councilors agreed to begin a search for a replacement for City Manager Jon Jennings as soon as possible in a Sept. 16 workshop – despite concerns a few councilors previously expressed about the Charter Commission, which recently began reviewing the structure of city government and could recommend systemic changes. 

Several commissioners campaigned on the desire to see the authority of the manager dramatically reduced from its current executive role to more of an administrative position.

At an earlier workshop, Councilors Pious Ali and Andrew Zarro said they wanted to see what comes out of the commission before launching a search for the next manager, since its recommendations could have an influence on applicants.

On Sept. 16, however, all councilors present for the public workshop agreed that the best path forward for the city is to appoint an interim manager as soon as possible, while simultaneously launching a nationwide search for the next permanent manager.

Councilor Spencer Thibodeau did not attend the workshop but did participate in an earlier executive session the council held about naming an interim manager. The council adjourned that 30-minute workshop without taking any action.

Jennings, who has been with the city since 2015, is leaving his position early after accepting a similar job in Clearwater, Florida. Jennings’ contract with Portland was slated to expire in July 2022, and he told officials he was not going to renew after that.

Mayor Kate Snyder had been hoping Jennings would give Portland notice of at least 90 days before leaving, but Jennings provided only 45 days. His last day on the job in Portland will be Nov. 1

Councilor Belinda Ray said her position on the subject has not changed since an Aug. 30 workshop. She wants the city to appoint an interim, but also immediately begin the search for a long-term replacement. She said although the Charter Commission’s work will look at the future structure of city government, it should not deter the council from doing its job within the existing structure.

The quickest timeline for the Charter Commission would be to have its recommendations ready next summer for the November 2022 ballot. The commission could also ask for a one-year extension, which would delay a vote until 2023.

“It really makes sense to fill this position,” Ray said, noting that if councilors don’t like the pool of candidates who first apply, they could reopen the search.

Several councilors, including Mark Dion and Zarro, said the council should ensure a robust public process in replacing Jennings. Dion asked Snyder to form an ad-hoc committee to begin the work.

“This is the most important decision we may make as a council,” he said.

Snyder agreed and said the plan is to create an ad-hoc committee – likely to include her and two other councilors – to “sculpt a community process” and craft a request for proposals from search firms interested in conducting the candidate search. But there is no schedule for that, and Snyder previously said she hopes the city can hire an interim manager in October.

A possible wrinkle in the process is that a third of the council will turn over as the manager search is beginning. Councilors Nick Mavodones, Thibodeau, and Ray are all stepping down, so three new councilors will be elected in November and seated in December.

Snyder, however, said she doesn’t see any reason the three outgoing councilors can’t be part of the initial work before the new councilors take over.

— Colin Ellis