This 2016 file photo shows the Belfast City Hall. Credit: Nick McCrea / BDN

BELFAST, Maine — City councilors are debating whether Belfast should mandate COVID-19 vaccines for new hires or even all employees.

That question was discussed at Tuesday night’s city council meeting, but councilors decided to wait and see what the federal government will require. Some still sounded strongly in favor of taking this kind of action as a way to protect both employees and the public.

“If I had my druthers, I would like everybody to be vaccinated,” Councilor Brenda Bonneville said. “If people want to leave, like they’re leaving the hospital and other places with mandates, then I’m sorry. But we’re working for the city of Belfast, and we want to keep people safe.”

Such a mandate would be one of the first in Maine. Portland required vaccines for non-union workers in September and intends to expand it to all employees. Belfast employs 146 people across various departments, meaning that it will be subject to President Joe Biden’s vaccine requirement for large employers, which covers roughly 84 million U.S. workers.

Under that mandate, employees who are not fully vaccinated have to wear face masks and be subject to weekly COVID-19 tests. There are exceptions, including for those who work outdoors or only at home. The Democratic president’s mandate has been challenged in court by 27 Republican-led states, along with aligned groups and companies. But a federal court in Cincinnati reversed a previous decision last week to say the mandate could move forward.

The Occupational Health and Safety Administration said over the weekend that it would not issue citations tied to its coronavirus vaccination mandate before Jan. 10, so companies have time to adjust to and implement the requirements.

“We are waiting for the state [of Maine] to adopt rules and guidance,” Belfast City Attorney Kristin Collins told councilors. “We should be operating under the premise that the federal mandate applies. We should be doing what we can to prepare for this.”

Belfast has not adopted any mandates so far and Tuesday’s meeting was the first time officials had held a public discussion on the matter. City Manager Erin Herbig told councilors that just over 90 percent of city employees have been vaccinated, which she called “pretty incredible.” Only 12 employees have tested positive for the virus, she said.

“We don’t have any positive evidence of spread between city employees,” Herbig said. “We’ve been very lucky in the city.”

Councilor Mike Hurley said that he believes the virus has nevertheless taken a toll on city operations. He said he would be uncomfortable hiring unvaccinated employees who are not vaccinated and would rather not hire anybody until there is clarity on the policy.

“We’ve had to close offices, we’ve had to quarantine people, we’ve lost people for many, many days,” he said. “We’ve lost productivity. It’s very expensive and here comes a worsening situation [with the Omicron variant].”