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Portland ends emergency pay but adds indoor mask mandate in response to COVID surge

Virus Outbreak Outdoor Learning
Robert F. Bukaty
In this Monday, Dec. 8, 2020 photo, Khalit Ibrahim looks at the view through a magnifying glass during a study of snowflakes at the Gerald Talbot School, in Portland, Maine.

Portland's local state of emergency was lifted on Monday — but councilors passed a new mask mandate for all buildings open to the public in the city.

The emergency order had triggered the city's new "hazard pay" ordinance on Jan. 1 and boosted the minimum wage to $19.50 for as long as it remained in effect.

Several workers called for councilors to keep the emergency order in place, pointing to the increased risk that many frontline workers face as the omicron variant spreads. But many small business owners, including chef David Turin, told the council that the higher wage could force some of them out of business.

"And such a high wage will cause many employers to move out of Portland, or to close. And that would be a tragic, unintended consequence of allowing the minimum wage to move forward. So please, don't let that happen," he said.

The new mask mandate will go into effect on Wednesday for all people over age two. Businesses that require vaccines to enter are exempt.

The decision came after hours of public debate, with several businesses — particularly gyms — pushing back, saying that the mandate could mean lost revenue.

But city staff and councilors said that a new policy was necessary in the face of the latest COVID wave. Councilor Anna Trevorrow said that even though a vast majority of residents are already vaccinated, masks are an extra precaution that will further limit the spread.

"It's proven effective. All the science points to that it is effective. Even though we're the first city in Maine to do this, cities around the country have done this already," Trevorrow said.

The council will review the new mask ordinance after 30 days.