WATERVILLE — City employees are now required to wear masks when interacting with other employees due to an increasing number of workers testing positive for COVID-19.

Meanwhile, the Waterville City Council is expected to consider whether to require masks at public meetings or have remote-only meetings.

Waterville City Manager Steve Daly has issued an administrative order that all city employees wear masks when interacting with other city workers. Submitted photo

City Manager Steve Daly told councilors this week that about a dozen city workers are in various stages of exposure protocols, with more than half working in person and taking appropriate measures to keep themselves and others safe.

“We’ve not experienced any diminishing ability to perform with our workforce because of the COVID influx,” Daly told councilors Tuesday.

About a week ago, Daly issued an administrative directive to all employees to wear masks when in contact with other city workers. Daly did so after speaking with Chief Shawn Esler of the Waterville Fire Department, who is the city’s lead person on COVID-19 matters.

“He advised that we should do that to protect the workforce,” Daly said.

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For three months, from September through November, about one in 18 city employees who took COVID-19 tests was positive for the virus, according to Daly. In December, that rose to one in eight employees, which Esler said likely reflected the surge in the omicron variant, according to Daly.

“The concern about the omicron variant is not that it is lethal or it’s debilitating in its effect, but more so that it’s eight times more transmissible than the previous variants of COVID,” Daly said. “Because of that, we were running the risk of it crippling our workforce because we’re still under the protocols for quarantining people and having them stay out of work for five to 10 days, isolating them so that they can’t work with other people, and it would be debilitating.”

As part of Daly’s administrative order, he also required members of the public to wear masks in public spaces at City Hall and at City Council and Planning Board meetings.

“That was an overstep on my part,” he said. “I don’t have the authority to do that. I backed away from that when it was pointed out to me, and I’m bringing that up here to let you know that’s the purview of the council to make decisions of that nature that affect the public. My role is to address the workforce.”

Council Chairwoman Rebecca Green, D-Ward 4, thanked Daly for requiring city staff members to wear masks at work. She attended Tuesday’s council meeting in person and was masked.

“I think it’s clearly coming from your staff as well that they recognize that this is a serious impediment, not just to health but also the operations of city business, ” Green said. “So I’m really pleased that you did that, and I would encourage us as a council to either require masks at council meetings or to move to remote meetings because, obviously, we have very few folks who feel prepared to come in person and I think that the point of meeting in person is becoming less important if we don’t actually have people attending, so I hope that we can revisit that at our next meeting.”

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Councilor Claude Francke, D-Ward 6, who attended the meeting remotely, echoed Green’s sentiments and thanked Daly for his mandate.

“I would point out that wearing a mask is not for your own safety but it’s a matter or protecting those around you and cutting down the spread of this very dangerous virus,” Francke said. “Even though the more-recent variant is not quite as deadly, it is much more infectious.

“We wore the masks and did the social distancing last year, and were relatively safe. So let’s be smart about this and put the masks back on.”

Councilor Rick Foss, R-Ward 5, who attended the meeting in person and was unmasked, pointed out that while Daly was speaking, City Clerk Patti Dubois coughed four times.

“In all four instances that she coughed, her hair above the mask moved,” Foss said, “so if we’re going to talk about masks, we need to talk about proper etiquette of masks and which ones actually work.

“Second of all, Mr. Daly has now touched his mask three times since he’s been giving his report, which has broken the seal on those. So, that being said, I’m sitting over here. That’s all I got to say.”

Green said the council at its next meeting, scheduled for Feb. 1, is expected to discuss whether to continue meeting in person or do so remotely.

In other matters, councilors voted 6-0 to rejoin the Kennebec Valley Council of Governments. Another vote is needed to finalize the matter.

Daly also reported the city had hired William Post as assistant city manager. Post is scheduled to begin Feb. 14. Until Friday, Post was Sagadahoc County administrator and has 26 years of town manager experience in Maine, according to Daly.

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