The City Council is under pressure from several sides as Portland’s state of emergency approaches its Dec. 20 expiration.
With the coronavirus pandemic showing no signs of abating, what councilors decide to do that night could have impacts beyond just whether they return to City Hall meetings.
Mayor Kate Snyder said several councilors are eager to return to in-person meetings and lifting the state of emergency will be on the agenda that night. Doing so would allow the council to meet in person on Jan. 3 for the first time in nearly two years.
The state of emergency, however, is also directly tied to a potential increase in the city’s minimum wage, mandated by a successful 2020 referendum that included a hazard pay provision that multiplies the minimum during emergencies.
The Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce has advocated for the council to lift the state of emergency because the minimum wage would otherwise increase by a multiplier of 1.5, to $19.50 an hour.
Chamber President Quincy Hentzel said the city is not gaining anything by remaining in the emergency. She noted the state is no longer in an emergency and said she doesn’t know of any other towns or municipalities that have declared local emergencies.
Hentzel said the state of emergency was a tool that helped at the onset of the pandemic but was not meant to be used for two years. At the time it was enacted, there wasn’t much information on the virus, and vaccines weren’t available.
“A lot of businesses are struggling,” Hentzel said. “The workforce has become the No. 1 challenge. A lot of businesses have already raised their minimum wage to recruit and retain workers. Increasing it to $19.50 might be a challenging increase for businesses to absorb.”
Snyder, however, said hazard pay has no bearing on the council’s desire to return to in-person meetings.
“For me, the driving issue is, do we need an emergency order in place to (allow the council to) continue to meet remotely all the time?” she said.
Snyder said the desire is to have a uniform policy, so residents will know how to participate in meetings, rather than having the council or any other body change its policy every month or “have a game-day decision every time there’s a meeting.”
“As we made our way into the fall, there was more and more discussion of when can we get back to in-person,” Snyder said. “Staff has been assessing the landscape in terms of COVID, but also getting ready.”
Meanwhile, others would rather see the state of emergency remain in place.
Former Mayor Ethan Strimling said he opposes lifting the state of emergency and believes the reasons for having it are “stronger than ever.” He said COVID-19 cases in Cumberland County are much higher now than they were when the council last renewed the declaration.
“We have seen in the first 10 days of December a higher per-day average than any other time in 2021,” Strimling said. “Repealing the emergency order now is exactly the wrong direction.”
The former mayor said it is “despicable” that the Chamber of Commerce is putting workers’ health at risk because they “don’t want to pay workers adequately.”
“There’s no doubt that’s why they’re lobbying the City Council for this,” Strimling said.
This is not the first time the city has considered ending the state of emergency. Maine’s state of emergency ended on June 30, and Portland followed suit at the end of July. However, the wildfire spread of the Delta variant ultimately led to a reversal.
In August, the council declared a limited, indefinite emergency. The City Council was slated to return to in-person meetings until the limited emergency was enacted.
Snyder said it remains challenging to anticipate a full-time return to Council Chambers. With new daily COVID-19 cases continuing to trend in the wrong direction, she said the sentiment against in-person meetings may increase.
Snyder said the most prudent thing to do is to rely on the city’s hybrid policy rather than rely on the state of emergency.
“That allows us to say today we’re meeting in person, but tomorrow we’re meeting remotely,” Snyder said. “It lets us be more nimble.”
An added element is the possibility of a new discussion on a proposed citywide mask mandate.
That effort previously failed, stalling at 4-4 in the council before eventually being voted down in favor of an education campaign. Snyder said while there have been discussions among councilors about this, there has not been an amendment proposed for the state of emergency.
She noted, however, that the council cannot lift the state of emergency and then impose a mask mandate.
“I’m not sure where it’s headed,” Snyder said. “But if the council supports a local mask mandate, it would live in a state of emergency.”
Strimling said he believed the city should have stronger regulations, such as a mask mandate and a vaccine requirement. He said cities around the country have taken this approach, and Portland should take more aggressive actions to combat the spread of the virus.
Initially, the council had hoped to be in person for the Dec. 6 inauguration of new councilors. However, Snyder said city staff recommended holding off on returning until Jan. 3 because the inauguration was expected to draw a large crowd that could require overflow space in City Hall. And while that has been done before, Snyder said the challenge now is to make sure those rooms have the capacity for Zoom participation.
Given that, she said staff recommended delaying the return to in-person meetings until one that is expected to attract a smaller audience.