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Small-business owners in Portland force city to back down on shipping and delivery restrictions

by | Apr 20, 2020

photo/Bob Bergeron

At an emergency workshop session this evening, the Portland City Council unanimously agreed not to enforce a strict interpretation of rules for so-called “non-essential” businesses that caused an uproar last week. Last Friday, in response to the public outcry, city staff were directed to allow owners and employees of those businesses to ship items from their stores, deliver them to customers, or make them available for curbside pickup. Councilors agreed to extend the relaxation of enforcement for at least another week, to their April 27 meeting, when the rules may be formally changed to allow shipping, deliveries and pickup.

The original rules, passed on March 25, decreed that all non-essential businesses must immediately close “their physical workspaces and facilities (‘brick-and-mortar premises’) to workers, customers, and the public.” But the same section of the proclamation also provided exceptions to that rule “in order to conduct essential business functions including, but not limited to, processing mail, depositing checks, completing payroll and paying vendors; as long as social distancing requirements are being implemented, and the fewest number of employees possible are on premises when conducting such services.”

Many Portland business owners interpreted “essential business functions” to include the fundamental function of any retail enterprise: selling goods to the public. Although their stores were closed, they continued to ship orders and deliver items according to the distancing and staffing guidelines spelled out in the proclamation.

It’s likely that many business owners also interpreted the permission to “process mail” to include processing orders to send by mail. Shipping goods by mail was not explicitly prohibited until last Tuesday’s Council workshop, following which the city released a “Frequently Asked Questions” guide that did explicitly prohibit that practice, along with deliveries and curbside pickup.

As Mainer reported last week, response to the new guidelines in that FAQ was swift and fierce. One downtown business owner characterized the stricter interpretation as a “death warrant for businesses,” most of which have not received any financial relief from the federal or state government since the pandemic crisis forced them to close last month.

Councilors got an earful from angry business owners over the weekend, including phone calls and hundreds of e-mails — more than 400, by one councilor’s count. No vote was taken during tonight’s workshop, but there was general agreement that when the Council meets next Monday it will consider formally easing its restrictions in response to the outcry, guided as well by public health data and recommendations from the state, which has more lenient rules for non-essential businesses throughout Maine.

Councilor Jill Duson noted this evening that the “blanket non-compliance and our non-enforcement” of the proclamation’s orders has not resulted in any noticeable local rise in COVID-19 cases. Councilor Kimberly Cook — who, along with Councilor Belinda Ray, supported easing the restrictions last week — observed that Gov. Janet Mills was surely aware that Portland is one of the most densely populated communities in Maine when she set forth the state’s rules for non-essential businesses. Cook said she intends to introduce an amendment to the city’s March 25 order next week that would align the city’s rules with the state’s.

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