Bangor has no plans to follow the lead of Portland and Brunswick in passing a local mask requirement amid the escalating spread of the omicron variant.
Portland became the first community in Maine to pass an indoor mask requirement in all public places within the city on Monday, though it doesn’t apply to businesses that require proof of vaccination. Brunswick became the second Maine community to pass a similar requirement on Thursday.
But there are no plans to follow suit in Bangor, City Council Chair Rick Fournier said. Many councilors and health experts doubt that such a rule would be effective or worth the potential backlash. Plus, enforcement would be difficult, they said.
Councilor Gretchen Schaefer said she is happy that masks are required in city buildings as well as by the Bangor School Department, but said a city-wide mask requirement would be difficult to enforce and could be divisive.
“I don’t think it’s going to make the difference that people wish it would,” Schaefer said
She supports a statewide mask requirement in theory, but said enforcement would be unbelievably difficult at this stage in the pandemic. Unlike during the earlier civil state of emergency, vaccines are widely available, and COVID-19 tests are more accessible than ever before, she noted.
Councilor Jonathan Sprague said he wouldn’t support a city-wide mask requirement right now. However, he said such measures were worth keeping in mind if cases increased significantly.
Penobscot County has seen about 81 cases a day since Dec. 24 — the sixth-lowest rate of any Maine county adjusted for population for that time period, according to Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention data. However, infection rates in Penobscot County were higher earlier last month and were elevated for much of the fall as the delta variant spread.
Since Dec. 1, Penobscot County has had the fifth-highest case rate among Maine’s 16 counties.
“We’re feeling the effects of some people who have still made the decision not to be vaccinated. A number of those people live in nearby communities as well as in Bangor,” Sprague said. “It’s going to have to be carefully watched.”
Sprague, who has worked in health care consulting for decades, said he’d be more willing to vote for a mask requirement if major health care providers in Bangor and the city’s public health department recommended it. A significant number of new cases within the Bangor School Department could also play a part in his vote, he said.
Northern Light Health, the area’s largest health care provider, does not make such public policy decisions, but it has called on Mainers since the start of the pandemic to mask while indoors, wash hands and socially distance, said Suzanne Spruce, a spokesperson for the health care network.
“We know that following these preventive measures has proven effective at reducing the spread of COVID-19,” Spruce said. “We all must do our part to save lives by limiting the spread of COVID-19 and reducing demand on our health care system.”
Apart from it being difficult to enforce, there are also questions about whether a mask requirement would do much to slow spread of the incredibly contagious omicron variant, especially if Bangor was the only community in the region with such a requirement, said Noah Nesin, innovation adviser with Penobscot Community Health Care and the organization’s former director of medical affairs.
A mask requirement may make sense from a public health perspective, Nesin said. But amid a COVID-fatigued population, and given that support for such public health measures has largely fallen along political and religious lines, he worried about the effect of such a policy on the city.
“I worry about the impact on the culture in a community like Bangor if a mask mandate was put in place at this point,” Nesin said. Plus, he said, such a requirement could distract from efforts to boost vaccination.
Fighting the virus by vaccinating more people and making tests more widely available seemed like a better option than the disruption created by a mask mandate, Schaefer said.
“It would be stressing systems that are already stressed to try to enforce that for a municipal level,” Schaefer said.