Pedestrians wear masks while walking along Main Street in Belfast in this October 2020 file photo. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

BELFAST — A majority of city councilors signaled their firm opposition to implementing a city-wide indoor mask mandate at Tuesday night’s regular council meeting.

Instead, after hearing from several members of the public who decried such a mandate, councilors unanimously voted to direct the city manager to draft a proclamation in favor of mask-wearing.

The vote happened after a lengthy and at-times testy discussion among the councilors, during which some strongly expressed their wish that the matter hadn’t been placed on the agenda at all.

“This is a distraction for everybody,” Councilor Mike Hurley said, adding that it was akin to “throwing gasoline on a fire.”  

Belfast is among several Maine municipalities that have been talking about enacting indoor mask mandates. Portland, Brunswick and Freeport recently approved such mandates, while Bath and South Portland are discussing the possibility this week. In Bangor, city officials said earlier this month that they had no plans to impose a mask requirement.

As soon as it was the agenda in Belfast, the idea that the city would enact such a mandate inflamed a segment of the community, who let their strong, negative feelings be known to officials via emails, phone calls and angry or emotional posts on social media.

“My feelings about it were not swayed by insults, of which there were many, or threats, of which there were also many,” Councilor Neal Harkness said. “None of that swayed me.”

What did, he said, were the comments of people who own or work at businesses that would be affected by a mandate, including a Hannaford employee who described how frightened they had been during the statewide mask mandate.

“He was threatened almost daily when he reminded people they needed to wear a mask,” Harkness said, adding that he believes a mandate would be unnecessarily divisive. “It would drive a wedge in this community.”

Councilor Brenda Bonneville, who had requested that councilors discuss the idea of indoor mask ordinance, said she had public safety and the maxed-out health care system on her mind.

“I have spoken with high level people in our healthcare system. They’ve said things like the healthcare system is struggling. They’re stretched [thin]. Any way to slow down the spread, including masking, would help their efforts,” she said. “These people are asking for help.”

She did hear from residents who were thankful that the city would consider asking people to wear masks indoors. But the comments from so many people who were adamantly opposed to a mandate was disheartening, she said.

“This, to me, puts people’s own individual needs in front of the greater good,” she said. “And I disagree with that general notion.”

Among the people who called in to the Zoom council meeting to share their concerns about the mask mandate were those who believe masks don’t do anything and that COVID-19 has a mortality rate that’s much lower than the official numbers suggest. One man said the pandemic is fraudulent. Another said that living in fear is not a good thing, and that everybody dies in the end.  

A different kind of perspective was shared by Paul McCarrier, who owns 1 Mill, a cannabis store on Route 1.

“I talked about it with my staff here,” he said. “We don’t want to be the arbiters or enforcers of this.”

After hearing from the public, councilors talked about how a mandate would be hard to enforce and likely wouldn’t persuade people to start wearing a mask in indoor public spaces if they weren’t already doing this.

“We’re not going to change anybody’s minds. The minds are already made up,” Councilor Mary Mortier said. “I didn’t run for city council to be the community police person. I believe that adults have the capability to make decisions for themselves.”