South Portland considers mask mandate similar to rules passed by Portland and Brunswick

·6 min read

Jan. 18—SOUTH PORTLAND — The City Council will hold a workshop discussion Tuesday on a proposal to institute a citywide indoor mask mandate similar to ordinances adopted in Portland and Brunswick.

Exactly how swift or strict local action will be depends on whether the council decides to enact an emergency ordinance that could go into effect next week, or takes a more measured approach, such as passing a resolution recommending that everyone wear masks in public buildings. The virtual meeting starts at 6:30 p.m.

"I think it's something we need to move on quickly for the health of our citizens," said Councilor Joselyn Leighton in proposing a mask mandate.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently recommends that people age 2 and up wear masks when physical distancing isn't possible or in crowded indoor or outdoor public settings.

On Friday, the CDC updated its guidance on the best masks to prevent transmission of COVID-19, saying "loosely woven cloth products provide the least protection; layered finely woven products offer more protection; well-fitting disposable surgical masks and KN95s offer even more protection; and well-fitting NIOSH-approved respirators (including N95s) offer the highest level of protection."

In a memo to the council Friday, municipal staff noted that the city currently recommends masking in municipal facilities when COVID-19 is designated in "substantial transmission" by the Maine CDC, and it requires masking in city facilities when the virus status is "high transmission." The state has been designated "high transmission" since September.

The state previously has had both indoor and outdoor mask mandates at different periods since the onset of the pandemic in March 2020, the memo said. The last mandate expired on May 24, about a month before Gov. Janet Mills allowed a statewide state of emergency to expire on June 30.

City staff advised the council that while Mills recently asked businesses to encourage employees and patrons to wear masks indoors, she hasn't indicated that she plans to institute a statewide mask mandate.

South Portland councilors are responding to requests from residents.

"We're hearing from a lot of people, asking us to do it," said Mayor Deqa Dahlac. "This omicron variant is spreading like wildfire and it's affecting people whether you're vaccinated or not. We have a responsibility as elected officials to protect the residents of South Portland."

Other cities are ahead of South Portland in moving on mask mandates. Portland adopted a mandate that went into effect Jan. 5, followed by Brunswick's ordinance on Jan. 12. Lewiston issued a mask recommendation Jan. 10 and Freeport is considering a mask mandate. Bangor and Auburn have no current plans to issue mask mandates, said South Portland City Manager Scott Morelli.

Portland's mandate requires people age 2 and up to wear masks when inside public places, according to the city's website. Businesses must post "masks required" signs. Businesses that require proof of vaccination by all on premises don't have to require masks. The City Council will review the ordinance every 30 days.

Portland's mandate will be enforced by the local health officer. Violating the ordinance is a civil infraction subject to a fine up to $500 per offense. However, the city's primary focus will be on education and voluntary compliance, a spokesperson said.

Brunswick's mask ordinance requires all people in buildings accessible to the public to wear coverings over their noses and mouths, according to the town's website. Places of worship are excluded. Face coverings also must be worn when using or operating public transportation, including ride shares, taxis and other vehicles for hire. The ordinance will be enforced by the local health officer and police, with potential fines up to $500 per violation.

Cory King, executive director of the Southern Midcoast Maine Chamber, wrote a column in The Times Record last week encouraging people to abide by the mandate.

"Nobody likes to wear a mask," King wrote. "However, if we want to get past this virus, we need to do the things to stop the spread. Don't get mad at the businesses for following the mandates, and don't get mad at our elected leadership for creating the mandates to try and keep us safe and healthy."

In South Portland, Morelli issued a memo to the council in advance of Tuesday's workshop with input from the city's COVID team, including Assistant City Manager Josh Reny and City Clerk Emily Scully, along with guidance from Sally Daggett, the city's attorney.

"The City Council has the legal authority to adopt public health ordinances, to include mask mandates in public settings, and other related protocols," the memo says. "The ability to enforce any ordinance is critical to ensuring that desired outcomes are achieved."

Whether mask use is adopted widely will depend on each business or entity requiring and self-enforcing the practice, the memo says.

"South Portland does not have the requisite staffing to be the 'mask police' and enforcement will likely be exclusively reactive and often too late to catch any reported violators 'in the act,' " the memo says. "Even so, any action taken by the council will very likely result in increased use of masks in public spaces."

If the council decides to require masks in public buildings, it could pass an emergency ordinance at its next meeting that would go into effect immediately, or it could pass a non-emergency ordinance that would go into effect 20 days after a second reading. The council also could issue an emergency proclamation, which would authorize the city manager to require masking as part of public health regulations, or it could pass a resolution recommending that everyone wear masks in public buildings.

Councilor Linda Cohen urged city staff to inform businesses in advance of Tuesday's workshop because they would be directly affected by a mandate.

Eamonn Dundon, director of advocacy for the Portland Regional Chamber, said it supported Portland's mandate and encouraged South Portland to have a similar exemption if businesses require proof of vaccination.

He also recommended clear language requiring the mandate to be reconsidered every 30 days and allowing the city manager to suspend the mandate if virus transmission drops to moderate or low levels.

"Have your staff be ready to answer questions from businesses in particular," Dundon said. "The more communities in the region that adopt (mandates), the easier the enforcement becomes."

Brendan Williams, a resident who is hearing impaired, said he supports a mask mandate, but he asked that an exception be included to accommodate people who are deaf or hearing impaired and rely on lip-reading.