Brunswick councilors voted unanimously Thursday to enact an indoor mask mandate for all public spaces in town to help slow the spread of COVID-19.

The controversial mandate requires both employees and customers to wear face coverings when inside a public building — examples of which include grocery stores, gas stations and restaurants. It was passed on an emergency basis and will come into effect on Jan. 12.

Modeled after the mandate Portland approved on Monday, exceptions are outlined for businesses that require proof of COVID-19 vaccination. Additionally, patrons are allowed to remove masks when participating in the “primary purpose of the business,” like eating or drinking.

The mandate was approved in light of the omicron variant of COVID-19 — a more contagious but potentially less severe strain of the virus that was first detected in Maine on Dec. 17.

Mid Coast Hospital endorsed the town’s mask mandate proposal.

“We have remained at full capacity of inpatient beds now for over a month, really since just after Thanksgiving,” Mid-Coast Parkview Health President and CEO Lois Skillings told the council. “We have experienced the biggest surge of inpatient COVID patients since the very beginning of the pandemic.”

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As of Thursday, there were 24 COVID-19 inpatients at Mid Coast Hospital.

Skillings said the surge has forced the hospital to dial back services, with an example being a pause on non-emergent surgeries for those who would need an overnight stay. Beds are lined up in the hallway outside of the emergency room “like something you see on television.”

The public comment portion of the meeting drew 10 speakers, seven of whom were against the mandate and three of whom were in favor.

“The division I see around this issue is so painful and so difficult to deal with on a daily basis,” said Brunswick resident Alex Armstrong, who spoke in opposition. “It is impacting our businesses, I’m a small business owner too – I can see people deciding to go elsewhere with their money if this mandate passes.”

Others in opposition raised concerns about enforcement measures, an infringement on personal choice, the effectiveness of cloth and blue surgical masks and additional worries about the impact on local businesses.

Data provided by Mid Coast Hospital shows that while N-95 masks are the most effective at preventing the spread of COVID-19, typical cloth and surgical masks still provide protection.

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“My freedom doesn’t end where your fear begins,” said Brunswick resident Debbie Bridges, adding “there are bigger problems in this town. Drugs, crime, I don’t want my tax dollars for that police department, which I respect, I adore, I don’t want them going for them chasing down people who may not be wearing a mask.”

Those that spoke in favor generally said that the mandate would allow businesses to operate more safely, and it would benefit the public health of the community. Town Councilors Abby King and Kathy Wilson said that when adding together emails from constituents, the majority favored the mandate.

“I think we’ve lost sight as to why we wear the masks. We wear the masks to protect everybody around us. Not just us,” said Brunswick resident Deborah Dipretore, who spoke in favor of the mandate. “I have an immunocompromised spouse who has not been able to go out of the house in a very long time because we can’t be sure if we walk into Walmart if she’s going to catch COVID.”

The United States Center for Disease Control and Prevention, a governmental agency tasked with protecting Americans from health threats, currently recommends that those who are not fully vaccinated wear a mask in indoor public places.

That recommendation also applies to vaccinated individuals in areas of substantial or high transmission. The Maine CDC aligns with the national guidelines. As of Thursday, all of Maine was classified as a high transmission area.

According to Brunswick Chief of Police Scott Stewart, the town is asking for voluntary compliance from the public.

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Those in violation will be directed to comply or leave the building and are subjected to a fine of up to $500. Businesses are asked to call the non-emergency police line to report non-compliance.

Councilors directed town staff to provide businesses with signs, masks and additional resources throughout the mandate. The rules apply to those who are aged two or older, and businesses are required to post a “masks required” sign by Jan. 18.

The council will review the decision every 30 days. A public hearing about the mandate is scheduled for the council’s Jan. 18 meeting.

As of Friday, 152,173 cases of COVID-19 had been reported in total statewide, resulting in 1,599 deaths. In Cumberland County, 29,488 cases had been reported and 274 deaths.

The Maine CDC estimates that about 74% of Maine’s eligible population has received a final dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. The CDC estimates that approximately 86% of Brunswick residents are vaccinated against COVID-19.

For more information on the mandate, visit brunswickme.org


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