Portland considers return to citywide mask mandate amid COVID-19 surge

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The Portland City Council is scheduled to hold a workshop on a possible emergency proclamation to reimpose a citywide indoor mask mandate for public spaces.

The Sept. 8 workshop was requested by Councilor Andrew Zarro, who owns the Little Woodford coffee shop. He has already reinstated a mask requirement at his Congress Street business.

Andrew Zarro
Portland City Councilor Andrew Zarro.

Zarro, who represents District 4, said although most people were feeling confident in July that the worst of the coronavirus pandemic was over, the rise of the highly contagious Delta variant has thrown everyone – Portland included – for a loop.

“It’s obviously tricky, because COVID has been politicized,” Zarro said. “That’s not what we should be doing. We should be looking at science and looking at the safety of our citizens.”

Zarro said he requested the workshop discussion to find out what steps the city can take as an individual municipality. He said he’s heard from business owners and employees in various industries who are concerned about the spiking number of new cases and want the city to take action.

“I wanted people to know we are considering it,” he said on Sept. 2. “Whatever we learn in the workshop will be what it is. But it’s important that the governing body of a city respond to what’s going on. Today’s numbers are significantly up. And it’s exhausting, but it’s the reality of our world right now. I think we need to be flexible and take the guidance of the Maine CDC seriously.”

On July 7, one of the lowest count days for the virus, Maine reported just 19 new COVID-19 cases. On Sept. 2, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported 624 new cases, the highest in several months since vaccines became available.

A statewide mask mandate was repealed on May 24 and came as somewhat of a surprise. Gov. Janet Mills had previously announced plans to lift only the mask requirements for outdoor gatherings. But she followed the guidance of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, which said fully vaccinated people did not have to be masked either outdoors or indoors.

That decision may have backfired since COVID-19 cases around the country and in Maine have skyrocketed in the last several weeks after declining in early summer.

Observers have pointed out that the trouble with the U.S. CDC guidance was it required everyone to be a good-faith actor, and only forgo masks if they were actually fully vaccinated – without any consistent system for people to present proof of vaccination.

Many businesses, including concert and performance venues and some restaurants, now require either proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test in order to enter.

The abandoning of masks, social distancing, and a perplexing countrywide resistance to vaccination – just over half of Americans are fully vaccinated – created a scenario that allowed for the rise of the Delta variant.

Health experts around the country have now predicted that, assuming mask mandates and social distancing are not reinstated, up to 100,000 additional Americans will die.

Following guidance from the U.S. CDC, the Maine CDC more recently announced masks were recommended for all people – unvaccinated and vaccinated alike – in areas where transmission rates reached “substantial” levels. Cumberland County reached that level fairly quickly.

Zarro said he has heard some pushback from people in the business community who believe if Portland reimposes its own mask mandate customers will instead shop at stores in surrounding communities.

“We’re treating this obviously as a citywide issue,” he said. “COVID exists everywhere.”

Zarro said he has no prediction about what will come from the workshop but believes it is important for the city to get as much scientific data and professional recommendations as possible.

“This is charged and politicized,” he said. “People are exhausted. I’m not surprised by what I’m hearing, but at the end of the day it’s our obligation to get all the fact-finding over with and revisit things when we have to.”

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