Portland health officials are backing a proposal to mandate mask wearing in all indoor spaces open to the public, regardless of a person’s vaccination status.

The recommendation comes after City Councilor Andrew Zarro, who owns a local coffee shop, requested a workshop to discuss adopting a local mask mandate amid a surge of new COVID-19 cases propelled by the highly contagious delta variant.

In a memo to the city manager last week, Director of Health and Human Services Kristen Dow and Deputy Director Tina Pettengil recommended that the mandate be adopted immediately, since Cumberland County has been seeing both high and substantial rates of transmission this month, and that it remain in effect until public health guidelines change or until Cumberland County has had three weeks of low to moderate transmissions.

The memo also noted that masking has been proven to slow transmission by reducing the emission of “virus-laden” droplets that can be inhaled by others, especially in indoor settings.

The council was not expected to take action at its meeting Wednesday night, but that could change in light of the recommendation from the public health staff.

Mayor Kate Snyder said last Tuesday that she was trying to reschedule the council workshop to be held before Wednesday’s 5 p.m. meeting, so councilors will have the option of enacting the mandate. Snyder said she still has questions about whether the city could enforce a mandate, but she was struck by public health staff’s call for a mandate to be implemented immediately.

The council would first need to vote to add a mandate to its business agenda, and it would have to receive the support of seven of the nine councilors for it to take effect immediately.

“That’s very powerful,” Snyder said of the health department’s memo. “If they’re looking for an immediate implementation of a mask mandate, that’s not going to happen if we have the workshop after the meeting.”

The recommendation comes as COVID-19 cases continue to surge across the state and the country, just as the weather is getting colder and people begin spending more time indoors. Unlike previous strains, the delta variant can be transmitted by people who have been vaccinated, though vaccinated individuals experience less severe symptoms and are less likely to be hospitalized. And it’s having a greater impact on children, most of whom are too young to be vaccinated.

Zarro said he has heard mostly support from local businesses and residents about adopting a local mask mandate. But he has also spoken with a few opponents, who told him they were not comfortable sharing their concerns publicly.

He said it’s clear how politicized mask-wearing has become and that opposition usually ranges from a perceived infringement on personal freedoms to enforcement concerns to the state’s role in setting such policies, rather than the public health value.

This has been far too politicized – mask wearing – we know it works,” Zarro said. “But it’s been politicized to the point where we’re trying to have an objective workshop about this and listen to health care professionals and folks will chime in with concerns that actually don’t have to do with the science.”

Some businesses previously told the Press Herald they would support a mandate, even if it wasn’t enforced, saying such a mandate would make it easier for their customers to understand.

Quincy Hentzel, CEO of the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce, said her organization does not yet have a position on the possible mandate.

“We have always encouraged our members to follow CDC guidance throughout the COVID pandemic, including the recommendation to mask indoors during periods of high transmission,” Hentzel said. “We are still consulting with our members on the necessity of a citywide mandate, and we look forward to tracking the discussion to ensure questions around enforcement and geographic consistency are considered.”

Seven states, plus the District of Columbia, have some sort of mask mandate for all people, regardless of vaccination status, while another six states have mandates for people who are not vaccinated, according to data compiled by NBC News.

And other cities, like Boston and New York, have adopted mandates in the absence of aggressive state-level action.

Some states under Republican control, meanwhile, have been hostile to local mandates. For example, Florida and Texas have tried to prohibit towns and schools districts from adopting mask mandates. And angry parents have descended on school board meetings in protest of mask mandates for students.

Maine has yet to reimpose mask-wearing mandates amid the delta surge. So far, state officials have been emphasizing the need to be vaccinated.

While other Maine towns and cities require masks in municipal facilities – South Portland and Brunswick among them – Portland appears to be the first in the state considering its own citywide mandate that would include private businesses.

Since early July, when Maine appeared to be turning a corner on the pandemic, cases have increased dramatically, driven largely by the highly transmissible delta variant.

On July 4, the seven-day daily case average was 20 cases, the lowest it had been in more than a year. A month later, on Aug. 4, that average increased to 100 cases. By Sept. 4, it was 384 cases. Cases have not been updated since Saturday because of the holiday weekend.

Hospitalizations from COVID-19 also have been increasing steadily. As of Tuesday, there were 183 individuals in the hospital, the highest total since late January near the pandemics high point. Of those, 68 were in critical care and 29 were on ventilators. This time last month, just 44 people were hospitalized with COVID-19, with 21 in critical care and nine on ventilators.

Gov. Janet Mills has been reluctant to put in place another statewide mask mandate and would need to declare another state of emergency to do so. Lindsay Crete, the governor’s press secretary, said in a written statement Tuesday that emergency measures, like mask mandates, capacity limits and physical distancing, were needed in the early days of the pandemic, because they were the only tools available. Now, they administration is focusing on getting people vaccinated.

“The surge in cases and hospitalizations Maine is experiencing now is driven fundamentally primarily by those who are not vaccinated,” Crete said. “Getting vaccinated remains the most effective way to reduce the spread of the virus and stem the tide of the pandemic, and we continue to urge all Maine people to roll up their sleeves and get their shot. It’s basic public health, personal responsibility and commonsense.”

Per U.S. CDC guidelines, masks are recommended indoors in areas of high or substantial transmission regardless of vaccination status. High transmission is defined as at least 100 cases per 100,000 people in the most recent seven-day period, while substantial transmission is at least 50 cases per 100,000 people.

As of Saturday, 14 of 16 counties in Maine were seeing high transmission. Lincoln and Sagadahoc were seeing substantial transmission.

Portland already has an active emergency declaration that allows the council and other boards and committees to continue meeting remotely. One path forward would be amending that order to include a citywide mask mandate.

Zarro noted that when he first requested the workshop to discuss a possible mask mandate, Cumberland County had a moderate transmission rate. Since then, transmission has increased to substantial or high most days.

Zarro said Maine has fared well under the leadership of Mills, a Democrat, and the CDC. But he’s concerned that that state leadership is not taking more aggressive action against the delta variant.

“I’m a little confused about why municipalities are having these conversations because we all seek that (state) leadership and we want that,” he said. “I would warmly welcome our friends up in Augusta sharing more than a recommendation and giving us a little more direction about what we should be doing when we’re in high transmission and substantial transmission.

“Ultimately, all of us have to be on the same page on this.”

Staff Writer Eric Russell contributed to this report.

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