On the same night it reinstated a citywide mask mandate, the Portland City Council ended the city’s pandemic state of emergency, which will return the minimum wage to $13 per hour.
The minimum automatically increased to $19.50 on Jan. 1 under a hazard pay provision voters approved in November 2020. The provision mandates a 50 percent raise in the minimum if the city is operating under a state of emergency.
Ending the state of emergency also allows the council to return to in-person meetings on a meeting-by-meeting basis.
The vote on Monday to abolish the emergency declaration was 8-1, with Councilor Victoria Pelletier opposed. The emergency will officially end on Jan. 14.
On Sunday, about two dozen people rallied in a chilly rain outside City Hall to urge the council to keep the emergency order in place. Speakers at the demonstration, organized by the local chapter of the Democratic Socialists for America, called for a citizen initiative to increase the minimum wage to $20 per hour, and said there must be more safeguards for workers to demand respect and improved conditions.
Leo Hilton of the DSA on Monday said Portland workers are ready to fight for the things they supported in 2020.
“We put in a lot of effort and the people of Portland were with us when we passed those initiatives,” Hilton said. “People knew hazard pay was part of that.”
Although the council was not slated to take public comment Monday – it heard public comment on Dec. 20 when it postponed repeal of the state of emergency – Councilor Pious Ali successfully sought to waive the rules in light of the turnout for the remote meeting, which attracted nearly 300 participants. Thirty eventually people spoke.
Those in favor of continuing the emergency included grocery store worker Vincent Grant, who said he risks his life every day he goes to work because he has an immune deficiency. He also said he is risking his mental health and the well-being of people in his life.
“Repealing this is saying essential workers are disposable,” Grant said. “Businesses have had an entire year to prepare to pay these wages.”
Most of the opposition came from business owners, who said the increased wages would result in companies having to reduce hours, lay off workers, or close.
David Turin, the owner of David’s restaurant in Monument Square, said the state of emergency had to be separated from safety measures like a mask mandate. He said the emergency declaration was really only impacting the minimum wage.
While he supports a higher minimum wage, Turin said, $19.50 an hour would have been the highest minimum wage in the country. He said the only businesses that could survive would be large national chains, not locally owned operations.
“This will cause many small businesses to move out of Portland and close,” Turin said.
In explaining her opposition to ending the emergency, Pelletier said there must be more equitable responses for communities of color who are often over-represented in front-line work. She said low-wage people of color have become the shield in protecting the people of Portland.
“We need to do something about this,” Pelletier said. “People are struggling. Businesses are hanging by a thread, so how can we make sure we are providing the support beyond saying we care about you, two thumbs up, here’s your pizza party, while also supporting small business? Everybody is struggling.”
The eight councilors who voted to end the state of emergency cited varied reasons.
Councilor Tae Chong said there is a difference between being in a crisis and being in a state of emergency. He said there is infrastructure in place now to deal with the impact of the pandemic that the city didn’t have before.
Councilor Roberto Rodriguez, who owns a small business, said small business owners already have small profit margins. While he previously voted to postpone action on the state of emergency, he said he is now more comfortable repealing it because the council was slated to take up other pandemic risk-mitigation factors like the mask mandate.
“I would just say that the discussion about wage disparities, especially how it affects minorities, that’s 100 percent a reality,” Rodriguez said. “That’s not unique to the pandemic. We have an opportunity and responsibility to do that. I don’t think jeopardizing the livelihood of small biz is the way to achieve that.”
Councilor Andrew Zarro, who also owns a small business, said he approached the vote from a perspective of just looking at what was before them: an emergency gives the city ways to respond to extraordinary events.
“I fully believe we have a health crisis that needs to be addressed,” Zarro said, adding this pandemic has disproportionately impacted health care and front-line workers but has also created an “us-versus-them” dialogue between workers and business owners, where “no one wins.”
“This does feel a little impossible at times,” Zarro said. “I hear everyone talking about hazard pay. I wish I could solve it. I hear you (that) working in a pandemic is terrifying, I’m right there alongside you. That’s why we need to approach this holistically. That mask mandate is my north star.”
New indoor mask mandate takes effect
Several months after the issue first returned to the City Council, and nearly 90 days since the measure was first rejected, Portland is now the only municipality in Maine with a mask mandate.
The council voted unanimously Monday night to reinstate the citywide mandate as of Jan. 5. It was passed as an emergency, so it did not require a second reading and will be in effect for 30 days. The measure will be revisited by the council at that time to decide if it is still necessary. Businesses that are open to the public will be required to post signs about the mask requirement starting Jan. 10.
The mandate was proposed by Councilor Andrew Zarro, who also proposed the previous, unsuccessful attempt. Zarro, who owns the Little Woodford coffeeshop, said this measure was based on the language of that previous one, but with a few tweaks.
For example, it now has a carveout that allows businesses to avoid the mask requirement if they require proof of vaccination.
The mandate will require masks in all public buildings with some exceptions: masks won’t be required for children under the age of 2, for people who are alone in a building, for people who are actively eating or drinking, for performers on stage, churches, schools, places where people can be physically separated from the general public, and portions of places like theaters or gyms where all the individuals using a space have been vaccinated.
Interim Corporation Counsel Jen Thompson said the ordinance was largely based on one adopted last month in Burlington, Vermont.
Nearly three dozen people spoke out on the issue Monday night. Those in support, including restaurant workers, registered nurses, and child care workers, urged the council to reinstate the mask mandate.
Sadie Tirrell, a nurse, said masking reduces disease transmission. Responding to several gym and fitness center owners who spoke before her about the difficulty of exercising while masked, Tirrell acknowledged “it stinks to wear a mask when exercising,” but in her field, it’s more frustrating to see surgeries and medical procedures postponed or canceled because the hospital is overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients.
“The care is not what it should be because the hospitals are overwhelmed,” she said.
Kristen Moustrouphis, the owner of Beacon Community Fitness, said she has done all she can for the last 22 months to make her business as safe as possible. She said Beacon is something of a “unicorn” – while it has 4,500 square feet, it frequently has 15 or fewer people inside at a time. She said she feels she has created an environment that is safe for people to be unmasked and asked councilors to consider businesses like hers that don’t fit into categories they laid out but will still be impacted.
The council also allowed several speakers to spread misinformation or make false claims about the virus: that it is spread through touching surfaces and not being airborne, that masks have proved ineffective and may lead to increased COVID-19 cases, that people who have had COVID-19 cannot be vaccinated, that the virus has done less damage to humanity than imposed mandates, and that it is unhealthy to cover your mouth.
In the past, councilors have asked Mayor Kate Snyder to cut off comments from people who make personal attacks, break council rules, or make outlandish and false claims.
While the council rejected the last attempt at a mask mandate, this proposal received unanimous support in light of the rise and rapid spread of the Omicron variant.
Kristen Dow, the city’s director of health and human services, said her department strongly supports the mask mandate, although it does not support the exception for businesses that require proof of vaccination.
Dow said it is important to recognize the city is responsible not just for its residents, but those who work in and visit Portland. She said the city should be using all risk-mitigation opportunities, so allowing some businesses to avoid that with just a vaccine requirement isn’t enough. While vaccines are the top tool to fight the virus, they alone won’t stop the spread.
“I know this is not the easy thing for Portland to be the first in the state,” Dow said, “but it is the right thing to do.
— Colin Ellis