Business owners and elected officials are showing support for a Portland city councilor who said he received threats after proposing the mask mandate instituted by the city last week.
Meanwhile, Maine Republicans are criticizing the councilor, Andrew Zarro, for what they say is his hostility toward them.
A day after the city’s mask mandate went into effect on Jan. 5, anti-mask, anti-vaccine individuals allegedly launched an attack on Zarro, who owns Little Woodfords coffee shop on Congress Street.
Zarro posted about the incident on Instagram, where he said what started as “a flurry of false and defamatory 1-star reviews” of his business online eventually escalated to direct threats of violence.
Zarro, a gay man, said the attacks also included “vicious homophobic and personal attacks” and a call to boycott his business. He said there was also a campaign underway to remove him from office.
Zarro did not respond to repeated requests to be interviewed. The mask mandate remains in effect for 30 days, when it will be reconsidered by the council and either allowed to expire or be renewed for another 30 days.
Zarro is also coming under fire from the GOP over anti-Republican stickers sold at Little Woodfords. The stickers, with slogans including “defund God” and “Abort Republicans,” were apparently part of a fundraising effort to protect reproductive rights.
The stickers caught the attention of the Daily Wire, a website co-founded by conservative firebrand Ben Shapiro, and were condemned last week by the Maine Republican Party. Jason Savage, executive director of the Maine GOP, declined to answer questions and referred a reporter to a statement released by the party:
“Selling merchandise that says hundreds of thousands of Mainers should be ‘aborted’ for their political beliefs is sickening. And this Portland elected official in his progressive Portland bubble may be surprised to learn that selling ‘Defund God’ items is not going to be well received by people of many different faiths regardless of their political persuasion.
“Councilor Zarro sounds like he needs some perspective – perhaps he should unplug from politics for a while, reflect on the impact that such horribly divisive rhetoric can have, and use this as an opportunity for personal growth. I feel for all Maine Republicans and believers in God who hear about this situation and have to process the fact that a Maine Democrat elected official hates them so badly. Janet Mills, Chellie Pingree, Jared Golden, and every other elected Democrat in Maine should be asked if they agree with Councilor Zarro’s actions.”
In an email, Savage said the stickers Zarro sold were “the opposite of what he claimed to stand for on the campaign trail. … Very divisive merchandise for an elected official to promote, especially one who ran claiming he wanted to promote unity and inclusiveness.”
City councilors on Friday, Jan. 7, denounced the campaign against Zarro. Mayor Kate Snyder noted the mask mandate had unanimous council support and said council decisions reflect shared work and are a product of “our representative democracy.”
“Coordinated attacks on a fellow councilor’s character and threats will never be tolerated,” she said in a statement. “I have come to know Councilor Zarro as a person of integrity, focused on good outcomes in response to the challenges we face.”
Councilor Victoria Pelletier said she was proud of the ordinance Zarro proposed.
“To see that individuals who are not in support of the mandate have been harassing him, leaving 1-star reviews on his shop, and calling him homophobic slurs is absolutely disgusting and unacceptable,” Pelletier said in a statement. “We are all individual humans who read every email and DM, and are doing our best to lead Portland through a pandemic that has never happened before. You can be disappointed in the decisions, without having that disappointment rooted in homophobia and/or violent threats – be better than this.”
Councilor April Fournier said while conversation and debate is good, the attacks on Zarro are not “critique or debate,” but rather a “coordinated attack on one of our peers resulting in threatening behavior at the local and national level.”
“As a community we are better than this and should do better for each other,” Fournier continued. “Using intimidation tactics and personal attacks as a means to punish elected officials for their decision is not acceptable.”
David Singer, a spokesperson for the Portland Police Department, said police are aware of the threats made against Zarro and were “looking into it.”
Members of the public and other business owners have also come to Zarro’s defense. One of them, Briana Volk, co-owner of Portland Hunt & Alpine Club and a proponent of the mask mandate, claimed she has also been threatened.
“There are a lot of small businesses who are getting attacked right now, some in incredibly horrible ways,” she wrote on Twitter. “My cell phone has been passed around in some anti-vax/right-wing group, people are being incredibly violent. Gotta say I don’t have a lot of hope for humanity these days.”
At least two members of the Charter Commission, Shay Stewart-Bouley and Marcques Houston, also commented on the situation.
“You may not want a mask mandate in Portland, ME but attacking his business and threatening him with bodily harm is crossing a line,” Stewart-Bouley tweeted.
Houston said that since the Charter Commission election last June there has been a lot of “ugly stuff poking its head out here in Portland.”
“Harassment and threats towards women of color, xenophobia, threats towards small businesses who are actively contributing to our community,” he tweeted. “This has no place here.”