Portland City Council delays vote on emergency mask mandate

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Following pushback from several business owners Monday night, Portland city councilors delayed a vote on a motion to require people to wear face masks in indoor public spaces regardless of COVID-19 vaccination status.

The City Council is now slated to vote on the measure on Monday, Sept. 20. 

Councilors held a workshop on the motion last week and appeared poised to vote in favor of the mandate. But several councilors expressed concerns about the language of the measure, especially how little warning would be given to businesses. And during a public hearing Monday, several business owners – mostly representing restaurants or fitness centers – had major concerns about the proposal.

Seal of the city of portlandSteve DiMillo, owner of DiMillo’s On The Water restaurant and chairman of the Hospitality Maine trade group, said even with ventilation and air conditioning improvements, commercial kitchens are hot, and having to wear masks will only make the work more uncomfortable for employees.

“We don’t think we’re the problem,” DiMillo said, adding his business and others have “done a great job at keeping both our staff and guests healthy.”

Julie Kiger, owner of Portland Power Yoga, said she is sympathetic and didn’t want to seem unconcerned about the pandemic or people who are immunocompromised, but her business relies on people exercising vigorously in 95-degree heat. She said she’s already spent thousands of dollars on improving the ventilation system.

“I’ve pivoted as much as I can pivot,” Kiger said.

Other members of the public, however, expressed support for the mask mandate.

Julia Duffy said she supports it “100 percent” and is on leave from her job because coworkers were “making the wrong choice about caring for other people’s safety.” She said she doesn’t have faith in people making the right choice, which is why a mandate is necessary.

Asking people to wear a mask is worth the inconvenience to help save lives, Duffy said. “The science has changed, the Delta variant is now what we were going through last year,” she said. “Just because we’re tired of it doesn’t mean it’s over.”

Monday’s postponement was the second time councilors have delayed action on the question. They held a Sept. 8 workshop with the possibility there would be a vote during their regular meeting later in the evening but decided to wait until Monday to give the city attorney time to draft ordinance language.

If enacted, the measure would amend 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, and for houses of worship.

Monday’s motion was by Councilor Andrew Zarro, who also requested last week’s workshop. He owns the Little Woodford coffee shop and has already reinstated a mask requirement at his Congress Street business.

The council on Monday voted 8-1 to postpone, with only Zarro opposed.

Before the Sept. 8 workshop, city staff delivered memos to the council and City Manager Jon Jennings, in which the Health and Human Services Department recommended the city return to universal masking.

“We recommend the mandate go into effect immediately and remain until the (U.S. Centers for Disease Control) releases new mask guidance or when the Cumberland County transmission rate falls into the low or moderate level for at least 21 consecutive days,” the memo from HHS Director Kristen Dow and Deputy Tina Pettingill said.

Despite most councilors expressing interest in the mandate at the workshop, several councilors expressed concerns Monday night.

Councilor Belinda Ray said while she didn’t take the HHS recommendations lightly, she wasn’t planning on supporting the mandate Monday night. She said she voted against the first mask mandate during the early stages of the pandemic because she believes this is a statewide issue, and Gov. Janet Mills should be the one making those decisions. She also said enacting a mandate only in Portland would likely push people to businesses outside the city.

“We won’t really accomplish what we’re trying to accomplish,” she said.

Several councilors also expressed concerns about the lack of Portland-specific data on COVID-19 transmission rates and hospitalizations. The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention provides that information for counties, but Dow said it is “impossible” to get on a municipal level.

During the Sept. 8 workshop, Jennings warned that the measure will be difficult to enforce. He said it fell to city staff exclusively to enforce a previous mask mandate, and while Dow said her staff could handle enforcement, Jennings said he was skeptical about their capacity to handle the new requirements. 

“I want people to be realistic about what city staff can do,” Jennings said.

He also said the city would not be able to provide continued support to stores and businesses that ask the city to provide them with masks or funding for them.

“We have provided a lot of financial assistance over the last 18 to 20 months,” Jennings said, adding most businesses probably still have a surplus of masks left from when they were last required.

If the mandate is eventually approved, Portland would join several cities across America that require masks under certain circumstances and would become the largest city north of Boston to enact a citywide indoor mask mandate. Corporation Counsel Danielle West told the council that while larger cities like New York City – which has tied business licensing to a mask mandate – have more enforcement authority, Portland would likely struggle.

“I think enforcement would be a big issue in the city of Portland,” she said about the suggestion the city could require a vaccine passport or proof of vaccination. “That would be more labor-intensive than the mask mandate.”

Councilor Mark Dion had supported the mask mandate during the Sept. 8 workshop, but called it “a game with no goalposts.” He said no one knows when the pandemic will actually be over, making it hard to have an idea of how long a mandate might last.

“I wish I could see the light at the end of the tunnel, but I can’t,” Dion said. “This might be the first of many other meetings on this issue.”

But during Monday’s meeting, Dion was one of the councilors who said he was not inclined to support the measure as presented. He said he is concerned councilors would become adversaries of the business community by enacting the mandate, and agreed it should be the state’s responsibility.

“I think we need to be a bit more sophisticated with our data,” Dion said on Monday. “I’m not satisfied with data just from Cumberland County.”

Portland councilors to get ARPA suggestions in October

Portland’s finance department will present the City Council Oct. 18 with proposals for using remaining federal funding available because of the coronavirus pandemic.

During a workshop Monday night, Finance Director Brendan O’Connell told councilors the city had more than 1,900 “interactions” on a survey about how to use American Rescue Plan Act funds, and more than 1,000 people completed the survey. He said programs for affordable housing and addressing homelessness received the most support.

Increased availability of public restrooms and water fountains, increased access to child care, and addressing climate change also scored highly, O’Connell said.

Portland received more than $43 million in ARPA funding. The first half was delivered 60 days after the plan was signed into law by President Joe Biden in March; the second distribution will come next year.

The city already used around $8 million of the first distribution to offset revenue shortfalls in this year’s budget, which leaves approximately $15 million to spend.

O’Connell said these funds can be spent through Dec. 31, 2024, or must at least be earmarked to use for specific programs by Dec. 31, 2026. They can’t be used to reduce taxes or delay a tax increase, and can’t be a match for federal programs.

He said there are four broad categories eligible for funds: response to the public health emergency from COVID-19 and its negative economic impact, aid to workers performing essential services during the pandemic, replacing lost revenue created by the pandemic, and investments in water, sewer, and broadband services.

He said lost revenue is the most flexible of the categories.

O’Connell said there will be additional discussion in upcoming Finance Committee meetings before returning to the council on Oct. 18 for a presentation on the proposals. That will be followed by a workshop on Oct. 25, and then a second reading and vote scheduled for Nov. 1.

Several people Monday asked the city to use the funds to support various programs or initiatives.

Michael Mertaugh, chair of the city’s Parks Commission, asked the city to continue to support the expanded tree planting program. He said during the pandemic, parks and trails have been good opportunities for people to see each other while remaining outdoors and socially distanced. The pandemic, he said, actually led to an increase in park use.

Cary Tyson, executive director of Portland Downtown, said the pandemic only “further exacerbated” the need for more public restrooms in the city. He said while many businesses have historically allowed people to use their facilities, that wasn’t an option in the last 18 months.

“There’s been a need for public restrooms going on for years,” he said. “This investment makes good business sense.”

Cumberland County District Attorney Jonathan Sahrbeck, who was a member of the city’s Racial Equity Steering Committee, said some ARPA funds should go toward diversion programs. He said the county jail doesn’t have the resources to appropriately handle mental health crises and would like to see the city invest in behavioral health solutions that would keep those individuals out of jail.

“We are suggesting the city take on the role of non-jail beds to divert people from the criminal justice system or emergency beds, and use these funds to take on the substantial need,” Sahrbeck said.

— Colin Ellis