The Orono Town Council is considering adopting an emergency ordinance to help slow the spread of the coronavirus as the university soon begins their fall semester. Credit: Nina Mahaleris | BDN

ORONO, Maine — Anticipating a population surge with the start of University of Maine’s fall semester, the Orono Town Council is discussing an emergency ordinance that would enforce mask-wearing in certain public places, provide oversight of large off-campus residences and levy hefty fines for violators.

But as the university town attempts to keep the coronavirus pandemic at bay locally, its efforts may be thwarted if seen as an infringement on residents’ personal freedoms — calling into question how far municipal governance is willing to go for the sake of public health.

The proposed ordinance, made public this week, would require people to wear face coverings in public places around town — including sidewalks, streets, while inside local businesses and when participating in permitted gatherings.

The town charter gives the council power to enact such emergency ordinances, if approved by at least four of its seven members. It would go into effect immediately after approval as an emergency ordinance.

Despite Orono having maintained a relatively low infection rate since the start of the pandemic, with just six recorded coronavirus cases as of Aug. 16, locals and students alike fear a potential outbreak after the rest of the university community settles in.

Town Manager Sophie Wilson said that about three weeks ago, residents began voicing concerns about people not wearing masks in public or adhering to social distancing recommendations.

While she mentioned that might be a result of people interpreting the state’s recommendations differently, a goal of the proposed ordinance is to make those rules clear in Orono.

But councilors seemed split during their meeting Monday evening about whether the emergency ordinance is truly necessary. Beyond that, the proposed ordinance also highlights the careful line between protecting public health and infringing on people’s personal freedoms.

People who are found not wearing their masks in public without an approved exemption could be fined between $100 and $500 for each offense after a first warning. The town cannot enforce the same restrictions on private property.

Privately owned residential housing complexes with 100 or more units — while not mandated to follow the same policies as buildings on public land — would have to provide the town with COVID-19 prevention plans, including details about how they would respond to an outbreak in their facilities.

Residential complex owners who fail to submit “timely and satisfactory” plans to the town for approval would be fined $1,000 per day until they do. They’d also face a similar fine if they fail to implement or enforce their prevention plans.

“This is definitely not something that [the] council has decided they’re going to do,” Wilson said, adding that it will make a decision based on the public’s feedback after an upcoming public hearing on Aug. 26.

Local residents, too, are unsure what to make of the ordinance.

“There’s no question there’s gonna be cases here with 10,000 students back,” said Kostas Bazmpas, owner of Orono House of Pizza. He said he supports the town’s effort in trying to slow the spread if it means preventing the university from shutting down again, but questioned what will actually happen when the semester is in full swing.

“I don’t know how well the students are going to follow this,” he said. “We’re all gonna do the best we can.”

The return of UMaine students has become a contentious issue as COVID-19 cases explode on college and university campuses across the U.S. following reopenings.

But some residents worry the emergency ordinance could target students unfairly by preemptively blaming them if an outbreak occurs. “[We] can’t go in with the assumption that students are going to bring the virus here,” Councilor Terry Greenier said Monday.

“I want us to make sure that we’re taking care of the situation but I don’t want it to be typically about these kids are going to be wreaking havoc on us.”

Wilson said that as a whole, the town is excited to welcome students back this fall — especially because they make up a big part of the local economy and businesses have felt the impacts of their sustained absence. “They are what make us a unique community.”

“I would hate for their return to be seen as a negative thing,” she said. “Still, everyone in town needs to remain vigilant.”

“I think [the ordinance] supports what we’re doing,” said Lauri Sidelko, UMaine Assistant Dean and Director of Student Life who joined the Monday meeting to discuss the issue and the university’s own COVID-19 response plans.

“We’re trying really really hard to plan for the worst and hope for the best.”

The public hearing is expected to take place on Aug. 26 via Zoom. People will be able to access the meeting’s login information on the council agenda.