BELFAST — City councilors decided not to consider a citywide indoor mask mandate at their Jan. 18 meeting, instead opting for a proclamation promoting mask-wearing and vaccination.

Councilors agreed that people should be wearing masks, but were not prepared to force them to do so with an indoor mandate. Many councilors felt it would not increase mask-wearing, but would rather make it more difficult for businesses to operate. Councilors Neal Harkness and Mike Hurley each said they had received several comments from the public against a mask requirement.

Councilors also expressed concern over how the city would handle violations of a mandate and how it would be enforced. Some councilors thought it would put employees of local businesses in the potentially dangerous position of trying to enforce the mask mandate on people who might threaten them.

“You got to have a cop on duty all day long every day at Hannaford, and one at Reny’s, and one at Ocean State, Belfast Variety, Rollie’s, Big Apple,” Harkness said. “… To say it can’t be policed is wrong. The policy won’t be policed by the police department. It’ll be policed by cashiers and stock boys and assistant managers and store owners. They don’t want to be the front line.”

Councilor Brenda Bonneville had requested the item be put on the agenda after speaking to local health care professionals who said they were stressed and nearly at care capacity because of an increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations, she said. She thinks an indoor mask requirement would help ease the burden on health care workers. She heard from some people who supported a mandate.

“Any way to slow down the spread, including masking, would greatly assist their efforts,” she said. “These people were asking for help.”

Bonneville acknowledged that Hurley had warned her the discussion would be divisive and disruptive, but she did not think that comments like Hurley’s would be appreciated by health care workers stretched thin by the pandemic from caring for sick people, she said.

She said public safety is a priority for elected officials and asking people to wear masks for a period of time, either by ordinance, proclamation or a recommendation, is part of that effort.

“We can dice words, we can call it something else, we can come out strong,” she said. “I don’t know why we are so afraid to come out strong as a town to say ‘wearing a mask inside would be a really good idea’ so that we’re not getting sick or getting others sick. I don’t know what the problem is.”

Hurley appeared frustrated with Bonneville over the agenda item and how it was worded, which he felt led people to believe the council was going to vote on a citywide mandate. He thought her intention was to introduce a mandate, but said he was confused by her comments about where she stands on the issue.

“You put on the agenda a mask-wearing mandate, and now we’re dealing with the blowout from that,” he said. “You have not been clear, everybody else has said exactly what they believe, and you have used five different words to do describe something which is indescribable, but you haven’t said what you believe and what you mean … . That’s why we’re getting 100 emails.”

In previous conversations with councilors, he had suggested the council adopt a proclamation instead of considering a mandate, because he knew it would be divisive, he said. “You know, it’s really nice that once we’ve thrown gasoline on the fire, that we talk about a proclamation,” he said.

He called the proclamation “wimpy,” and said those enraged by the idea of a mandate are not going to consider the proclamation.

“Instead, we have mask mandate on our agenda and a population enraged who is not going to hear a word about some proclamation,” he said. “So I’ll support a proclamation. I think it’s important to do that. We should have done that. We shouldn’t have been talking about a mask mandate because exactly what I was afraid would happen, happened. … I didn’t ask for this fight and I was dragged into it.”

Councilor Paul Dean said he would not support a mask mandate, but moved to draft a proclamation that urges the public to wear masks in public spaces, get vaccinated and get a booster shot. Councilors voted unanimously to have city staff draft the proclamation to be approved at a future meeting.

Several members of the public spoke against the agenda item and City Manager Erin Herbig said there had been about 40 comments submitted in writing.

Denis Howard, a Belfast resident and business owner, spoke against a mask mandate. He talked about the different ways he approaches customers with respect to whether they are wearing masks or not and how that approach can help the community move past the pandemic together.

“You just read a person; you treat them with respect,” he said. “If they’re wearing a mask, they’re more scared, stand farther away, be very nice. Give them what they want and get them out of there. If they’re not wearing a mask, they’re going to shake our hand, they’re going to hug you. They’re going to be fine, you’re going to be fine. You just have to approach customers and each other in this city with a modicum of respect, and I think we can get through this together.”