Portland council declares limited emergency as COVID-19 cases rise

City Council postpones planned return to in-person meetings

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In response to the growing number of daily new cases of coronavirus in the city and state, particularly with the highly contagious Delta variant, Portland city councilors unanimously declared a limited emergency Monday night.

The designation will last indefinitely until rescinded by the City Council, which was not scheduled to meet Monday but announced the emergency meeting at the end of last week.

The emergency stalls the return of in-person City Hall meetings for the council, which were slated to resume this month. Instead, the council will continue to meet remotely. Background materials for Monday’s meeting cited poor ventilation in City Hall, the COVID-19 infection rate, and the spread of the Delta variant as reasons to remain remote.

Danielle West, the city’s top attorney, told councilors that while this is a recommendation for all boards and committees to do the same, it only applies to the council. The other governing bodies and panels will have to adopt the policy on their own.

City Hall will remain closed to the public and conduct many services by appointment, as it has been doing for several months.

“It’s still business as usual for City Hall and business as usual for the City Council,” West said. “This is just a limited order.”

Mayor Kate Snyder said the council wants to return to in-person meetings, and Council Chambers has been updated to accommodate a hybrid style where residents can participate from home.

But given the uncertainty in the state – at the time of the meeting, five counties had enough cases for Gov. Janet Mills and the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention to recommend universal mask-wearing indoors – Snyder said the data indicated they should pause the return to in-person meetings for now “to prioritize public health.”

She said many people – councilors, staff, or members of the public – might get infected by someone else and become carriers, and then go home and infect a family member who may not be vaccinated because of age or other medical exceptions.

“The country is dealing with a variant situation that’s proven to be unpredictable,” Snyder said, adding she is “willing to continue down this path until we know more and feel it’s the most responsible thing to go back.”

The limited emergency received unanimous support, with councilors indicating an abundance of caution is appropriate. Councilor Andrew Zarro, for example, said he still wears a mask at his business, the Little Woodford coffee shop, and has seen other businesses having to adjust their summer and fall plans because of the increased risk presented by the variant.

“This feels right,” Zarro said. “It’s one of those gut instinct things.”

Councilor Belinda Ray agreed, saying “caution is wise.” She said there have been plenty of times when Council Chambers are packed with people, creating “very tight, shoulder-to-shoulder meetings.”