Portland City Council ends debate on mask mandate in favor of ‘education campaign’

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The Portland City Council finally killed a proposed indoor mask mandate Monday night, while continuing to allow their own meetings to be held remotely instead of in City Hall Council Chambers.

Councilors also unanimously approved a resolution urging people to take precautions, including wearing masks, to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Seal of the city of portlandThe resolution, proposed by Mayor Kate Snyder, calls for an “education campaign” to be used in connection with masking, physical distancing, and vaccinations.

“We can look at this as an alternative to the mask mandate,” Snyder said.

The day before the council meeting, the Portland Democratic City Committee voted to endorse a mask mandate proposed for indoor public spaces. Committee Chairman Charles Skold on Monday told the council a campaign is not enough to combat the spread and threat of COVID-19. He said Portland is a city visited by many people, and visitors who are here temporarily contribute to the spread of the virus.

“We encourage an approach that would have more teeth,” he said.

Councilor Belinda Ray, who was an opponent of the proposed mask mandate, called Snyder’s resolution “a really good way to encourage people to take the steps they need to take to protect themselves and others.”

But Councilor Andrew Zarro, who proposed the mask mandate, said the resolution is not an alternative to the mandate.

“I see it as a yes-and,” Zarro said. “I want to be clear that this is not enough on its own.”

Snyder said the resolution is a way for the city to communicate the importance of masking indoors, without requiring the use of masks.

In prior meetings, the council has struggled with who would enforce a mandate. City Manager Jon Jennings has said the city does not have the staff or capacity to actively enforce the mandate, meaning the burden would fall to businesses.

“This resolution is not a perfect solution, but I believe is a step in the right direction,” Snyder said. “We want you to be wearing masks.”

At their last meeting, the Council tied 4-4 on whether to adopt the mask mandate. Because it was a tie, it returned as unfinished business and could not be postponed indefinitely, which is a tool the council can use to permanently remove an item from future agendas.

Although city staff had recommended the council adopt the mandate, several councilors expressed hesitancy and instead wanted Gov. Janet Mills to order statewide action, something that is extremely unlikely.

The city, meanwhile, recently announced that people over the age of 2 at various indoor facilities, including Merrill Auditorium, the James A. Banks Sr. Exposition Building, and Ocean Gateway would have to wear masks. They also must show proof of vaccination or proof of a negative COVID-19 test.

On Monday night, however, Snyder introduced an amendment that would remove the language requiring the mandate. That passed 5-3, with Councilors April Fournier and Pious Ali joining Zarro in opposition to both the amendment and the final vote on the motion.

Nothing would prevent another mask mandate proposal from being considered by the council in the future.

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