AUBURN — City officials said Wednesday that the combination of statewide orders from Gov. Janet Mills and factors unique to Auburn have led them to stop short of declaring an emergency amid the COVID-19 crisis.

Mayor Jason Levesque believes Auburn is not at the point where an emergency declaration is needed, but said he and City Manager Peter Crichton are reassessing each day and their position could change.

Levesque said Wednesday that Auburn, a city of 65 square miles, has a “disperse population,” along with a coronavirus case count in Androscoggin County “that hasn’t really risen.” As of Wednesday, there were four cases in Androscoggin, with two people listed as “recovered.”

“It leads us to believe that if we keep this course, what we’re doing is working,” he said. “It’s not needed at this point due to other proactive measures.”

On Tuesday, Levesque released a statement encouraging residents to adhere to Mills’ executive order issued earlier that day, which said all nonessential public-facing businesses must close to the public. Levesque’s statement also urged all residents to “remain safely at home whenever possible.”

Public-facing businesses are those that serve customers.

In general, declaring a state of emergency allows municipalities to exercise broader powers and request state assistance to respond to a crisis, but each municipality operates under its own emergency ordinance.

Most of Maine’s largest cities, including Portland, Bangor, Augusta and Lewiston, declared emergencies prior to Gov. Mills issuing more strict measures to control the spread of the virus.

As the COVID-19 crisis has unfolded, the emergency declarations have been used to issue curfews, business closings, and more recently, “shelter-in-place” orders.

On Tuesday, Portland extended its state of emergency and issued a shelter-in-place order effective Wednesday evening in response to the rise in cases in Cumberland County. COVID-19 has also infected five city employees.

Crichton said Wednesday that a draft emergency declaration has already been written in the event Auburn officials feel it’s needed. If Auburn were to consider a shelter-in-place order, it would have to declare an emergency first.

Auburn’s emergency ordinance gives the mayor and city manager sweeping powers to “promulgate such regulations deemed necessary to protect life and property and to preserve critical resources” during an emergency.

The ordinance states such regulations may include, but are not limited to “prohibiting or restricting the movement of vehicles from areas within or without the city; regulations “necessary to abate, clean up or mitigate whatever hazards exist” and “such other regulations necessary to preserve public peace, health and safety.”

Part of Levesque’s statement Tuesday urged residents from other municipalities to “not visit or pass through Auburn until all risk of COVID-19 has passed.”

An emergency declaration would also give the mayor, city manager or purchasing agent the authority to “obtain vital supplies, equipment and other properties found lacking and needed for the protection of health, life and property.”

Levesque said he might consider calling an emergency based on a few factors, depending on local cases as well as what’s occurring in neighboring communities.

“We’ve spent a lot of time on this, thinking about the pros and cons,” he said.

Crichton said, “I think it’s a question of degrees of seriousness. If we get to the point where we’re asking people to truly lock down in their homes, we’d be at that point where we’d need to look at an emergency declaration.”

For now, Levesque said he is concentrating on backing the statewide measures while taking steps to calm the public, particularly children, during a stressful and unprecedented time.

Late Wednesday, he and Lewiston Mayor Mark Cayer announced an initiative dubbed “Sound the Bells,” hoping to spark symbols of unity and positivity countywide. On Friday, he said he plans to film a promotional video with the help of students from Sherwood Heights Elementary School.

Crichton agreed Wednesday with Levesque’s call for the city to also focus on the mental health of the community.

“We’re trying to send a calming message to the community, with our actions and what we’re saying and doing,” he said. “I think we’ve been taking the appropriate actions so far.”

Crichton said roughly half of city employees are now working remotely, or have altered their schedules to spend some time at Auburn Hall and other days at home.

“This is like being in a movie,” he said.


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