After two years, can you call COVID an emergency? The Portland City Council was faced with that question last week and came up with “no” for an answer. The council voted to lift a municipal state of emergency order last Monday, a  controversial decision that ended a hazard pay provision, which briefly hiked the city’s minimum wage from $13 an hour to $19.50.

Recognizing that we are still in the midst of a public health crisis, however, the council also passed an ordinance requiring universal mask wearing in businesses that are open to the public. The pair of votes is getting criticism from both poles of the political spectrum, but the council did the right thing and deserves credit for coming to a thoughtful response to a complicated problem.

Keep in mind, an emergency is a temporary and unexpected situation. Governments declare emergencies to be able to act fast when there isn’t time to go through the normal process.

The city used its emergency declaration to hold remote meetings – which were not legal under state law in 2020. It also used emergency powers to create rules on indoor dining and outdoor seating so they could go into effect without waiting for the council to advertise meetings, take public comment and debate different ideas.

Enough time has passed for the City Council and the Maine Legislature to pass those rules through the regular process, and they have.

The council’s decision to remove the order had the effect of cutting hazard pay, but cutting pay was not their intention. The hazard pay provision was part of the minimum-wage referendum that was passed by the voters in 2020, which hikes the minimum wage whenever there is a declared state of emergency.

Strong arguments were made about how wages are too low in the city and elsewhere, but that does not make COVID an emergency. If a living wage were the standard, then the COVID state of emergency might never end, no matter what’s happening with the virus.

The pandemic is still very much with us, even if it isn’t temporary or unexpected. COVID-19 hospitalizations passed 400 this week, a new record for Maine. There are as many new cases as there have been on any of the worst days of the pandemic so far.

Which has made the Portland council’s other action at the Monday meeting equally important. Using their regular process, the council passed an ordinance that requires customers and employees of every public-facing business to cover their faces in order to inhibit the spread of the coronavirus. A business that checks vaccine status and permits only fully vaccinated people to enter can be exempt.

This is a logical step to take when COVID is spreading so rapidly. And the vaccine exemption makes it safer for staff and patrons in restaurants, where eating and drinking make mask wearing impossible.

People get frustrated with the pace of government action and don’t appreciate what look like half measures. Portland’s City Council did not make many people happy at last week’s meeting, but it did weigh competing interests and came up with solutions that would help the most people. With COVID turning into a permanent presence in our communities, these are the kinds of long-term measures we should expect.


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