The days blend together for Jeff Wallace as he visits Bangor businesses to follow up on complaints about possible coronavirus safety violations, most related to face coverings.
“It’s like ‘Groundhog Day,’” he said, referring to the 1993 movie in which a TV weatherman must relive the same day repeatedly. “Here’s today’s list of complaints. Let’s hit the road.”
After most businesses reopened in July, Bangor received a total of 150 complaints, or about six a week, through the state’s COVID-19 complaint webpage and those made directly with the city. Wallace walks a delicate line as he talks to businesses and organizations about enforcing sometimes vague mandates on the tense issue of mask-wearing and distancing.
Like many code and law enforcement officers throughout the state, he takes an education-first approach to handling alleged violations rather than handing out citations to businesses. Most organizations comply with no further action required. It looks like that approach is working in most cases, even as coronavirus cases and deaths continued to rise over the past three weeks throughout the state and country.
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New England states are ahead of most of the rest of the country around mask-wearing, with up to 96 percent of the population covering their face in public, according to Carnegie Mellon University data from Nov. 16. The university found that Maine’s seven-day average of COVID-19 cases as of Nov. 11 was the second-lowest among the New England states. But it is rising, with the seven-day average for new cases on Wednesday at 191.7, up from 164.7 a week ago and just 30.9 a month ago.
Gov. Janet Mills acknowledged at a press conference Wednesday that the ability of businesses to enforce the mask mandate is not always clear, and vowed to issue more guidance soon. Businesses can exclude someone who refuses to wear a mask, she said. Mills recently expanded the mask policy to include wearing them basically any time a person is not by themselves or leaves their home, though many municipalities are not enforcing mask noncompliance when people are outdoors.
While other states have taken a heavier hand in issuing fines, Mills is relying on businesses and “all available methods of enforcement” to follow her executive order for mask-wearing with a focus on education and voluntary compliance. Noncompliance with a governor’s executive orders can be a Class E crime punishable by up to 180 days in jail and a $1,000 fine for individuals and up to $10,000 for businesses.
From left (clockwise): Jeff Wallace (right), director of code enforcement for the city of Bangor, speaks with Papa John’s Assistant Manager Ashley Curtis about enforcing coronavirus safety guidelines on Nov. 18; Wallace walks back to his car after making a stop at the Rock Church on Nov. 18 to address concerns about mask-wearing; Wallace holds paperwork as he addresses code violations surrounding mask-wearing on Nov. 18. Credit: Natalie Williams | BDN
The promise of more clarity is good news to Colleen McCabe, manager of the Bethel Foodliner grocery store. She’s had to contend at times with agitated customers who don’t want to wear a face covering. Some claim they have a medical condition that prevents them from wearing a mask. But she said when they are offered a face shield, they refuse to wear it.
“I’ve had my help saying, ‘I’m scared and I don’t want to do this,’” she said. “I’m not going to put them in that position.”
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McCabe, whose parents have owned the small market for 41 years, said the state mandates for mask-wearing are too vague. She wants Mills to require face coverings for everyone, including those with medical conditions.
Some people just won’t wear a mask whether or not there is a governor’s order or a fine, Bar Harbor police Capt. David Kerns said. Like Wallace in Bangor, his department takes an educational approach. Officers visit businesses to explain complaints and go over the state’s coronavirus-prevention checklist that pertains to them.
So far, Kerns has not had to issue a summons or arrest anyone. But he is sensitive to not creating any tension between establishments and police.
“For the most part we have not had negative interactions,” he said. “People understand the situation we are put in.”
He credits a free mask program with high mask compliance in the town, even during tourist season. Bar Harbor is one of 180 Maine municipalities and tribal governments that received money from a $13 million state program that provided grants to incentivize public health programs around the virus with federal stimulus money. Bar Harbor received $127,000 and gave out 136,000 disposable masks twice daily at six downtown locations throughout the summer.
The city of Portland, which is using its $1.8 million award from the program for education and signs around the city, is deploying health inspectors and code enforcement officers to check on the up to one dozen complaints it gets daily from the state and its See Click Fix website.
While most complaints are resolved by educating businesses, some establishments get more than one and risk a state citation, Jessica Blais Hanscombe, Portland’s licensing and housing safety manager, said.
Pat’s Pizza in Portland’s Old Port is one example. A patron reported the eatery to state health officials for not stopping unmasked customers from walking in common areas. A city inspector observed violations when visiting the restaurant, which allowed that inspector to issue an imminent health hazard citation. That can escalate to temporary business license suspensions if the problem isn’t corrected. The restaurant shut down temporarily last month after it experienced a virus outbreak.
The first citation is a warning. If the problem persists and more citations are issued, the business can have its operating license suspended for anywhere from a week to 30 days. The city issued an imminent health hazard citation to a second Portland business this week, the Drink Exchange on Wharf Street, for mask violations, she said.
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One business that has drawn several citations is Sunday River Brewing Co. in Bethel. A judge recently ordered the restaurant to close for the second time this year because of ongoing mask-wearing and Plexiglass partitioning violations. Co-owner Rick Savage, a vocal critic of Mills and her restrictions, has said he will fight the order in court.
Most times, however, inspectors don’t see any violation when they visit a business. They rely on the owners to tell them what happened. Owners are often aware of infractions, inspectors said.
“Sometimes there’s a vast difference between the way I read the complaint and then observe what’s going on,” said Wallace, Bangor’s code enforcement director. “The complaints always paint a darker picture.”
Sometimes business owners feel put upon by the visits. Richard Clark, co-owner of Benjamin’s Pub in Bangor, recently closed his restaurant for at least a month because of the rise in cases. That was after a couple of visits from Wallace and a call from a state inspector. He said no violations were found, but that inspectors were “coming down on us pretty hard.”
Clark said he doesn’t object to the state rules, but felt the focus on his restaurant was heavy-handed.
“I don’t want to point the finger at the city or the health inspector,” he said. “I think everyone’s just on edge right now.”