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Portland City Council votes to end local emergency order, institute mask mandate

The Portland City Council voted to repeal the city’s declaration of emergency and implement an indoor mask mandate at its meeting on January 3. The mask mandate will go into effect at midnight on January 5. 

The order repealing the city’s declaration of emergency, which was tied to a $19.50 hourly hazard pay wage required to be paid by the city’s businesses, was originally slated to be voted on at the council’s December 20 meeting.

Staff in the city manager’s office had recommended the emergency order be repealed because it was passed to allow city council meetings to take place remotely and state and city laws have since been amended to allow remote meetings.

Although the council was not going to hear public comment on the order, having taken comment at its previous meeting, Councilor Pious Ali made a motion to waive the council’s rules and accept comment from members of the public who hadn’t previously spoken.

The council heard comment from roughly 30 members of the public, many of them small business owners and employees of Portland businesses. While a few people provided comment in support of keeping the emergency order in place to allow workers to continue receiving hazard pay, the majority of comments from business owners noted the continued hazard pay would put them out of business.

Following public comment, council members discussed the order to repeal the emergency order before voting.

Councilor Andrew Zarro questioned the scope of power emergency orders provide the city and whether the emergency order had fulfilled its original purpose. Jen Thompson, Portland’s corporation council, clarified that, following a city council vote in August, only two of the provisions of the emergency order remained in effect. Both of those provisions related to remote meeting policies for the city council and for land use developers.

Thompson also said the emergency order’s language has since been covered by changes to remote meeting policy made in state and local law and that the emergency order was no longer needed.

The city council ultimately voted 8-1 to repeal the emergency order. Hazard pay will be in effect for 10 more days until the emergency officially expires.

The council also took public comment on and debated a city-wide indoor mask mandate. The council previously considered a mask mandate in September. Zarro stated he worked with the corporation council to create the indoor mask ordinance. 

The ordinance, which would amend the city’s code, requires face coverings to be worn by individuals in indoors public buildings but includes an exception for children under the age of two, people with medical conditions, or anyone who is alone in a building. 

Theaters, gyms, and athletic arenas are exempt from the ordinance if they are vaccinated and there is space for social distancing or a ventilation system.

The order also includes an exception that allows businesses to screen individuals by vaccination status and allow fully vaccinated individuals to not wear a mask.

The ordinance is required to be reviewed every 30 days. People not in compliance with the ordinance will be fined.

The council heard public comments from over 20 people. Most of the comments provided by the public were in favor of the mask mandate. Many business owners who provided input in opposition to the emergency order also commented in favor of a mask mandate. A number of business owners stated they already required mask-wearing and had received public abuse as a result. They believed a city ordinance would provide some protection from public backlash.

Others offering public comment were opposed to the mask mandate, including one restaurant worker who was concerned the ordinance requires businesses to act as policy police.

Others questioned the effectiveness of a mask mandate given recent studies that suggest cloth masks are ineffective against stopping the spread of COVID-19. Several gym owners also asked for clarification about how the exception for vaccinated individuals worked within their spaces.

During discussion of the ordinance by the city council, Councilor Mark Dion suggested the ordinance might need to be revisited in 30 days to recognize differences between spaces such as private gyms with a self-selected clientele and restaurants where the general public mixes in tight spaces.

The council voted 9-0 to waive a second reading of the ordinance and again voted 9-0 to pass it as an emergency.

The council also heard from Kristen Dow, the director of the city’s Department of Health and Human Services. Dow said her department didn’t necessarily support the ordinance’s vaccine exemption and supports using mitigation tools.  

The council held a vote to remove the vaccine exemption from the ordinance, but the motion failed by a vote of 6-3.

Following questions about whether the ordinance’s definition of “fully vaccinated” included booster shots and concern implementing the ordinance at midnight on January 2 wouldn’t give businesses enough time to prepare, Zarro offered an amendment to use the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s definition of vaccination and delay enforcement of the mandate until midnight on January 5. The motion passed by a vote of 9-0.

The ordinance also requires businesses to post signs at their entrances informing individuals of the mask requirement, but this will not be enforced until January 10.

The council also voted 9-0 to appoint Bridget Rauscher, the city’s public health officer, to the position of constable, giving her authority to issue violations of the face covering ordinance. Fines will be issued against people violating the mask mandate, not businesses.