As both the Delta and Omicron variants of COVID-19 wash over Maine, the Portland City Council will soon debate whether to extend the city’s State of Emergency (SoE). This debate appears to highlight the classic division between, on the one hand, Portland’s capitalist interests–largely represented by Portland’s Chamber of Commerce and moderate City Councilors, who favor repealing the SoE and possibly replacing it with a mask mandate–and on the other, lots of frontline workers, who are demanding both a mask mandate and the continuation of the SoE. In this case, however, that division is a little murkier.

First off, what is a State of Emergency (SoE), and why is it so divisive? Basically, a SoE allows Portland’s government to side step certain processes and take extraordinary actions that might not be granted under ordinary circumstances. As part of that SoE, starting January 1, 2022, a Portland ordinance takes effect stating that during a SoE Portland’s employers must ensure their workers receive a minimum wage of time and a half, which in this case will be $19.50 per hour. This wage increase explains why the city’s Chamber of Commerce and moderate Councilors are trying to end the SoE, that is, they don’t want to compensate workers with a fair wage that reflects the heightened risk of working in a pandemic. 

Amid this debate, a group of restaurateurs plans to submit a petition to City Council asking that the city go further than just a mask mandate and implement a vaccine mandate be in certain spaces.

This petition only speaks for restaurants and other indoor spaces where a mask mandate feels futile. I think a mask mandate is great for retail shops and would support a mask mandate for the City, but something more is needed in places where guests spend the vast majority of their time unmasked,” said Andrew Taylor, co-owner of Big Tree Hospitality and one of the main motivators behind this petition, which has already garnered nine signatories and continues to grow.

With unnamed sources within City Hall citing rumors that some moderate City Councilors are horse trading, trying to make a deal with progressive Councilors to trade a mask mandate for votes to end the SoE, Pine & Roses asked Mr. Taylor if the restaurant owners’ petition aimed to replace the SoE and avoid hazard pay. “All we are petitioning for is a vaccine mandate for certain indoor spaces,” he said, “we raise no objection to the emergency hazard wage which will not really affect our businesses if it goes into effect.”

He’s not wrong. While every Portland worker is ensured a hazard pay rate of $19.50 per hour, tipped workers (commonly employed in restaurants) will be paid an hourly wage of $9.75 by their employer, with a requirement that their tips get them the rest of the way to $19.50. This creates less of an immediate financial burden on restaurant owners. That said, it can be argued that burden is merely being shifted because restaurant employees are some of the most at-risk during this pandemic, working in confined spaces where consumers have to remove their masks. And, along with that comes an increased risk of restaurant owners being forced to temporarily close their businesses more often as COVID cases are detected among their staff.

So, there are two big reasons why instituting a city-wide vaccine mandate in restaurants and certain other indoor spaces makes good sense. First, there is the economic logic: if consumers are vaccinated, restaurant workers will catch COVID less often. And the less often they catch COVID, the less risk there is that the business will have to close down temporarily, which affects not only the owners’ bottom-line, but the income of every employee. Second, there is the more important reason, the logic of compassion: a mandate would take a deliberate step towards keeping Portland’s workers, along with their friends and families, safe during these dangerous times.

With their petition, the restaurateurs have opened another option that progressive City Councilors might consider. Instead of making a deal that repeals Portland’s SoE in return for getting a mask mandate, they could up the ante by publicly supporting the business owners’ vaccine mandate petition. Our progressive Councilors could use it as proof for why Portland needs all three: an extended SoE, a mask mandate, and a vaccine mandate. This, along with the fact that not all business owners oppose hazard pay, could help give progressives the leverage they need to pass smart, compassionate COVID policies in the coming days. 

It also complicates and blurs the debate’s originally presumed divisions. It’s no longer as clear cut between labor interests and business interests, as many conflicts are. In this atmosphere of pandemic and uncertainty, this particular debate becomes between those who put people above profits, and those who don’t.

The Portland City Council will decide on January 3, 2022 whether to extend the city’s State of Emergency. If you would like to urge them to extend it, and to support a mask mandate and the petition for a targeted vaccine mandate, you can reach Councilors by using their contact info listed HERE. If you would like to join the rally on Sunday, January 2, at 2 PM at City Hall to urge Councilors to extend the State of Emergency, RSVP HERE.