Portland City Council Feb. 7, 2022, meeting
The Portland City Council voted 7-2 on Feb. 7 to end a citywide mask mandate it enacted a month ago, but voted unanimously to ban the sale of flavored tobacco and nicotine products starting June 1. (Portland Phoenix/Colin Ellis)
advertisementSmiley face

Despite the city’s health and human services director advising against the action, the Portland City Council on Monday repealed a citywide mask mandate it enacted one month ago.

The vote was 7-2, with Councilors Andrew Zarro and Victoria Pelletier opposed.

Councilors who supported repealing the mandate cited reassuring statistics – fewer hospitalizations and daily case counts – that made them confident the omicron variant surge of the coronavirus is waning.

HHS Director Kristen Dow, however, said downward trending data is “a wonderful thing to see,” but there are still reasons to remain cautious.

The COVID-19 positivity rate in Cumberland County remains at 10.7 percent, she said, more than twice the rate it was in December before the council enacted the mandate. And while there are 327 people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Maine, down from 369 in December, that is still up significantly from 150 in September when the council began discussing the latest mandate.

Additionally, Cumberland County remains in a high transmission status. The last time it was in moderate transmission, the threshold where the U.S. Centers for Disease Control does not recommend indoor masking, was also last September.

“I want to be careful,” Dow said. “We’re trending in a wonderful direction but we still have a ways to go.”

Dow also said data from testing of city wastewater, which is considered a reliable indicator of how prevalent COVID-19 is in the population, is not yet available.

The council enacted the mandate on Jan. 3 after several discussions and delayed votes. It was slated to be revisited every 30 days. Had it been renewed Monday night, the council was slated to take up an amendment to change the procedure and revisit the mandate at its first meeting every month.

The vote to repeal came after Councilor Anna Trevorrow successfully introduced an amendment that changed the intent of the item on the council’s agenda. It had been listed as a vote to continue requiring face masks, but Trevorrow’s amendment altered the language to make it a vote to repeal the requirement. The repeal takes effect 10 days after the council’s vote, on Feb. 17.

Trevorrow said the 10-day period allows a cushion for the council to react in case the recent coronavirus statistical trends are reversed.

Zarro said he was surprised the council was ready to remove the mask requirement so soon after it had been enacted. He said he would have considered doing so closer to March 7, when the Council would have been scheduled to consider the measure again.

“I won’t support this amendment because I don’t think we’re there just yet,” he said. “We just put so much work into this and the community really rallied. While we’re almost there I don’t know that we’re there just yet.”

Pelletier said she is concerned that the promising number of fewer cases and hospitalizations could be a result of the mask mandate, so removing it would be counterproductive. She also said she is worried people have started to normalize the case numbers and hospitalizations, which remain significant.

“I don’t want to live in it forever,” she said, “but the surge ebbs and flows.”

Councilors Roberto Rodriguez and April Fournier said they supported repealing the mask requirement in part because they believe the council could revisit and re-enact a mandate if the statistics take a negative turn or if a new coronavirus variant emerges.  

“What we have seen now is we are starting to see across the board numbers are coming down,” Fournier said. “I do feel we are on the downslope, which is great.”

But interim Corporation Counsel Jen Thompson said repeal prohibits the council from taking the issue up again for another year, unless councilors vote to suspend their rules.

As several speakers pointed out during public comment, Portland is not alone in moving towards ending mask mandates. The states of Oregon, New Jersey, Delaware, and California all recently announced the end of masking requirements.

City bans sale of flavored tobacco products 

Portland City Councilors on Monday unanimously banned the sale of flavored tobacco products.

The ban takes effect June 1 and will coincide with a similar prohibition in Bangor. It applies to all flavored tobacco and nicotine products, both natural and synthetic, including menthol; electronic cigarettes; vaping mechanisms; hookahs, and any tobacco product that creates a taste or smell other than tobacco at any point prior to or during consumption.

It does not include cannabis unless that product also contains tobacco or nicotine.

Nearly 50 people addressed the council during discussion that took up nearly half of the more than five-hour meeting. Several health professionals spoke in favor of the ban, saying these types of products are aimed at getting young people and children hooked on tobacco.

Kneka Smith, a cancer survivor who grew up with a mother who smoked, said she supports the ban because she has four teenage children who are the prime targets of flavored tobacco products. She said she knows children as young as 11 who use these products daily, hiding vaping products in their stuffed animals and backpack pockets.

“Smoking is not cool to them, but vaping is,” she said.

Meanwhile, several business owners and tobacco industry representatives said the ban would harm local businesses because users will simply go to neighboring towns that haven’t banned the products. Several opponents also said some of these products, specifically vape products, help people who are trying to quit smoking cigarettes.

Chris Beaulier, director of retail operations at the Maine Cigarette Shopper, said stores would be forced to lay off employees because of lost revenue, and potentially even shut down.

“Our employees are hardworking individuals who enjoy their jobs and need their jobs,” he said.

Councilor Tae Chong, who chairs the committee that proposed the ban, said in addition to targeting young people, these products are specifically aimed at disproportionately enticing young people from communities of color and marginalized communities. While Portland and Bangor are the only municipalities in Maine to take this action, he said more than 300 municipalities in the country have begun the process.

Councilors Mark Dion and Victoria Pelletier said they struggled with voting for a prohibition. But Pelletier said she wanted to do what was best for children of color in her community.

“As someone who works in racial equity, I have to do whatever I can to protect the young Black kids who come after me,” Pelletier said. “I have to champion them and be a role model.”

— Colin Ellis