Sanford’s top public official is calling out some members of the community for choosing individual liberties over their responsibility to protect school children and other citizens from exposure to COVID-19 in a city that has become a hot spot for the highly contagious virus.

Sanford Mayor Tom Cote: “We need to choose others over ourselves and put aside the labels that divide us.” Journal Tribune photo

Mayor Tom Cote, in his closing remarks to the Sanford City Council on Tuesday night, read a letter that he said took him about a week to compose after observing COVID-19 outbreaks throughout the community that forced Superintendent Matt Nelson to postpone the opening of schools until Sept. 14.

“It is time for our community to step up and do the right thing,” Cote said, mentioning the start of school. “(Students) are mandated to wear a mask, social distance, wash their hands, alter their schedules, and do without many of their social activities. These are the expectations of our students, but as adults, we are not practicing what we preach.”

Cote didn’t hold back any punches in his remarks, which were directed at people who refuse to wear masks in public, who congregate in large gatherings, and who ignore state social distancing guidelines. Cote said he is concerned by some Sanford residents’ reluctance to embrace science and the recommendations of health experts over what they seem to perceive as an infringement of their liberties.

“Go into any store in Sanford and you will see people without masks and not distancing themselves,” Cote said. “Strangely, this is not the case in other communities I visit.”

The mayor pleaded with Sanford residents to start focusing on a common goal that will allow children to return to school in a safe and protected manner.


“If you are refusing to adhere to the governor’s order simply on the basis of your individual freedoms, then you, not the collective you, but you personally, are responsible for any delays to our kids going to school, playing sports and participating in school activities,” Cote said. “You, or your group, are choosing yourself over our school kids – as you say, it’s your right. But the people who follow the guidelines and make the necessary sacrifices also have rights. One of them is to hold you responsible for what happens next. Your decisions have consequences.”

In recent days, Sanford has experienced several COVID-19 outbreaks, including at the Calvary Baptist Church in Sanford. The church’s pastor, Todd Bell, presided over an Aug. 7 wedding in East Millinocket. State epidemiologists say the wedding and reception can be linked to more than 150 positive COVID-19 cases and three deaths. There have been 10 positive cases of COVID-19 among members of the church congregation.

Earlier this week, Bell engaged a high-profile lawyer to defend his congregation’s religious liberties. Bell has held in-person services without masks or social distancing, according to videos posted online. Bell’s defiant stance has divided the Sanford community, prompting some organizations to suspend their collaboration with the church’s outreach work.

In his address to the City Council, Cote did not refer directly to any organization or individual, but he did speak frankly about the need to put personal interests aside for the greater good.

“We need to choose others over ourselves and put aside the labels that divide us,” Cote said. “This time should be about individual sacrifice, compassion, and showing our children what it means to be a positive member of this community. It’s time to step up and do the right thing for our kids.”

Cote’s comments to the council were also included in a letter that was posted Wednesday on the city’s Facebook page. While most of the comments were positive there was at least one person who pushed back.


“If this was as deadly as originally said it was, people would take it more seriously. Period,” one man wrote. “Live your life or don’t. Live in fear, or live life.”

There were 23 new cases of COVID-19 reported Wednesday, with 14 of those cases in York County. Dr. Nirav Shah, the director of the Maine Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has called the situation in York County “deeply concerning,” because the virus may be spreading through community transmission.

Outbreaks have been reported at the York County Jail in Alfred, the Calvary Baptist Church in Sanford, Seal Rock Health Care nursing home in Saco and the Sanford Fire Department. There also have been outbreaks reported at two Sanford social clubs – the Lafayette Club and the Sanford American Legion. State health officials have confirmed that the outbreak at the county jail is linked to the Millinocket-area wedding and reception. A jail employee attended the wedding.

Many schools in Maine started welcoming students back to class this week, but that will not be the case in Sanford, where Nelson, the superintendent, decided to delay the start of in-person learning for all students until Monday.

In a letter sent to parents dated Sept. 4, Nelson said the increase in virus cases forced the state to recategorize York County from green to yellow because the county’s positivity rate was three times the state average, suggesting community transmission is occurring.

“This information, combined with recent events in Sanford, have me concerned about an increased level of community risk,” Nelson wrote. “I have decided to delay the start date for Sanford High School and Sanford Regional Technical Center from Tuesday, Sept. 8, to Monday, Sept. 14, to give us time to monitor the potential spread. I realize the timing of this decision is not ideal. I also recognize the hardship it places on families but I believe it is the best decision under the circumstances.”

Nelson said his decision to delay the opening of schools also will affect all students in grades K-8. But on Wednesday, Nelson made another change to his school reopening plan that will impact students in grades K-4. Beginning Monday, Nelson said that students in those grades will attend in-person classes two days a week instead of five. Nelson altered his plan as “an additional precaution in light of York County’s yellow designation.”

Students in grades 5-8 will start remote learning Monday due to school construction work that will prevent them from entering the building.

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