Portland officials recommend masks for indoor public gatherings

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Less than a week after the City Council postponed a return to in-person meetings by declaring a limited emergency, city officials are now asking residents – even those who are vaccinated – to wear masks in indoor public settings.

In a news release last week, Mayor Kate Snyder and City Manager Jon Jennings said that since Cumberland County is now designated as having substantial community transmission of coronavirus, they are asking residents to comply with state and federal public health guidelines for wearing masks indoors.

“The city is committed to the health and wellbeing of our residents, and visitors,” Snyder said in the release. “In consideration of the increased circulation of the COVID-19 Delta variant throughout Maine and the nation, and the fact that this new variant is more contagious than other COVID-19 strains, we’re asking that people take extra precautions by wearing a mask inside during this time in order to protect our community.” 

Seven Maine counties last week met the U.S. Centers for Disease Control threshold where masks are recommended for all people in indoor public settings: Cumberland, York, Knox, Penobscot, and Aroostook are all listed as “substantial transmission,” while Waldo and Piscataquis counties have the “high transmission” designation.

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, has indicated the state may look beyond the federal standard because Maine’s small population can cause county designations to fluctuate rapidly.

Portland City Hall, which is still open by appointment for residents, has continued to require masks, and Jennings is reimplementing mask requirements for city staff in city buildings. He said the city will continue to monitor the situation as well as public health recommendations before making any new decisions.  

Like many communities around the country, Portland and Cumberland County went away from the mask mandate in late May, saying those who were vaccinated were protected from the virus and no longer needed to wear masks.

But that guidance was based on the expectation that those who were not vaccinated would continue to wear masks – a failed assumption, since there was no way to enforce the action or make sure those not wearing masks were being honest about their vaccination status.

The highly contagious Delta variant of the virus has been spreading, meanwhile, causing infections to increase to more than seven times the daily average a month ago. While still below the all-time highs of last year, Maine’s seven-day average of daily new cases was 138 as of Tuesday, Aug. 10, according to the Maine CDC.

At the same time, just over 80 percent of Maine’s population has received at least one vaccination shot, the Gov. Janet Mills administration said Monday, and nearly 70 percent of residents 12 or older are fully vaccinated.

Snyder said it is important for residents to remain informed, and get vaccinated if they have not done so.

“With vaccines still only available for those 12 and older, we need to remember there are vulnerable populations in our community,” Snyder said.