Portland officials Friday announced a partial shutdown of city services after a city employee apparently contracted coronavirus.
City Manager Jon Jennings confirmed at a City Hall press conference that the employee at the India Street Public Health Center tested presumptively positive for the COVID-19 virus. Jennings did not identify the employee, nor did he disclose how the person may have contracted the virus, but said the individual was in self-quarantine.
“We have decided to close the India Street clinic for the next 14 days,” Jennings said.
Jennings also shut City Hall at 3 p.m. Friday out of caution, and said officials would meet to decide whether, or for how long, City Hall would remain closed.
Jennings said 23 employees have been asked to self-quarantine, including employees who work at the 103 India St. clinic and those who travel between the clinic and City Hall on Congress Street.
Seven volunteers at the clinic have also been asked to self-quarantine. Jennings said he didn’t know how many people were served by the clinic, but said the city will work to make sure their medical needs are met.
“We have been working with other community providers to make sure those patients have access to a continuation of care,” he said. “We will be reassessing that as we go long, and we will make sure we continue to make sure those patients have access to medical care.”
Jennings said the one problematic area is a needle exchange the clinic offers, which other services don’t provide. He said the city is working with the Maine Center for Disease Control to find an alternative provider.
“We are taking this pandemic very, very seriously,” Jennings said.
He said the circumstances around coronavirus are “ever changing,” and officials were working to prevent a larger breakout in Portland.
He said they have suspended all out-of-state travel for city employees for at least 30 days and are requiring city employees who show any symptoms of illness to stay home. Anyone who appears ill will be sent home, Jennings said.
The Barron Center, a nursing and rehabilitation center at 1145 Brighton Ave., will be closely monitored, Jennings said. He said the population at the center is particularly vulnerable to the virus, and employees of the center will be screened before each shift.
Jennings said the city is also working closely with its homeless shelters, such as the Oxford Street Shelter and the Family Shelter, where floors are reserved at each shelter to serve as an area for self-quarantine.
“In case any of our guests are confirmed positive, they will be able to isolate and will not be asked to do anything other than that,” he said.
The health center employee was the third individual in Maine to have a presumptive positive test. The first was a 50-year-old woman from Androscoggin County.
According to the Maine Center for Disease Control on Friday, the new cases are “a woman in her 20s, who is being cared for at Maine Medical Center in Portland, and a man in his 50s, who was screened at a MaineHealth outpatient clinic and is in self-isolation at home.”
Maine was the last New England state to have confirmed cases of the virus, which has now been classified as a global pandemic by the World Health Organization.
In addition to closing City Hall and the India Street clinic, Portland officials have cancelled City Council, committee and subcommittee meetings, as well as Planning Board, Parks Commission, Land Bank and other meetings.
The Maine CDC and others have stressed that social distancing is the best defense against the spread of the virus. Mayor Kate Snyder echoed that: “Transmission rates drop when people have space,” Snyder said.
Jennings said the city has canceled events at Merrill Auditorium, the Portland Expo Center and Ocean Gateway for the next 30 days. Other public meetings, ranging from swim lessons to performances by the Portland Symphony Orchestra, have also been canceled for the next 30 days.
Jennings said the city is encouraging others to cancel events and allow for social distancing, as per the request of Gov. Janet Mills, who this week called for non-essential indoor gatherings of more than 250 people to be canceled. He said from a Portland perspective, that threshold will be much lower than 250 people.
“It’s a comprehensive approach,” he said.
Other groups have taken the advice. For example, the annual Maine Jewish Film Festival postponed its upcoming events until fall. The Maine Jewish Museum will also be closed to the public until at least the end of March.
Jennings also said two cruise ships slated to port in the city at the end of April won’t be allowed to dock, at least for now.
“We will be reassessing this as we go forward,” he said.
Jennings said he has been in touch with the director of the Portland International Jetport, and while it is still early, trends are showing the virus response has negatively impacted airline business. However, he stressed this is not just an issue at Portland’s airport, but throughout the country.
He said the Greater Portland Transit District’s METRO bus service is continuing to operate.
Snyder noted that while some city services are being curtailed, small local businesses are still operating. She said the city is committed to working with businesses to encourage people to continue shopping and ordering takeout from restaurants. She said as of now, officials are not asking any restaurants or businesses to close.
“We hope that people will continue to support small local businesses,” Snyder said.
The mayor said she has also heard from many residents concerned about city schools.
As of Friday, Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana said the School Department “remains vigilant,” but the focus is on keeping the schools open. In a letter to district families, Botana noted Gov. Mills had not asked schools to close.
The schools announced that an upcoming School Board Finance Committee meeting will be closed to the public. In a press release, the department also said Botana is withdrawing an elementary reconfiguration plan from his budget proposal because of uncertainty caused by the virus.
“It is responsible to take a step back and work on an implementation plan with a longer timeline, given the amount of questions about the reconfiguration, the challenge of having a meaningful public discussion about it given the restrictions on public meetings, and the general uncertainty facing all of us with the COVID-19 pandemic,” Botana said in the statement.
However, it seems more likely than not that schools may be closed at some point.
Colleges and universities in Maine and across the country have told students not to return to campus, instead saying classes should be completed online. And Baxter Academy for Technology and Science, a charter school at 185 Lancaster St. in Bayside, cancelled classes Friday and announced it would adopt remote learning next week.