Portsmouth lifts plastic bag ban for 6 months to help businesses

Monday’s meeting is first ever streamed by Town Council


PORTSMOUTH — In an effort to assist local businesses during the COVID-19 crisis, the Town Council Monday night voted 4-3 to suspend enforcement of Portsmouth’s single-use plastic bag ban until Sept. 14.

The approved ordinance temporarily lifts the ban on the use of most single-use plastic bags that originally went into effect on Sept. 1, 2018. The stay is needed to address concerns “raised over potential risks of the spread of the COVID-19 virus to merchants, grocers, cashiers, baggers, customers and other members of the public due to the use of reusable checkout bags, and the prohibition of single use plastic bags, during the current coronavirus pandemic,” according to the wording of the new ordinance.

The vote was the main item of interest at Monday’s meeting, which was a first for the council in that it was streamed online via the Zoom application. Council members joined other elected officials around the state in conducting meetings online during the pandemic, which is permissible due to Gov. Gina Raimondo’s suspension of the Open Meetings Act.

Council members could talk to each other and their faces were visible during the meeting, and individual roll call votes had to be taken for each action item. Members of the public could ask questions by pressing a “Raise Your Hand” button in the app, although only a couple of town department heads chose to do so. Viewers could also make comments online that were visible to council members.

Although Monday’s meeting was only 40 minutes long, a good deal of that time was spent on plastic bags, which drew a spirited debate. 

Town Administrator Richard Rainer, Jr. endorsed the idea, saying that managers and mayors throughout Rhode Island are in favor of temporarily allowing the use of single-use plastic bags to give relief to local businesses, especially grocery stores and restaurants, that are running out of paper bags.

“This will alleviate many of the issues that small businesses are facing,” said Mr. Rainer, adding that many restaurants are finding it difficult to offer takeout without plastic bags. “Clements’ (Marketplace) has also asked for some relief. This would be in line with what many of the other towns are doing.”

There are about “five or six towns” so far that have either suspended their own plastic bag ordinances, have issued an executive order, or have simply chose not to enforce the bag ban during the crisis, he said. The six-month stay would also give these businesses time to stock up on paper bags, Mr. Rainer said. 

Richard Talipsky, the town’s director business development, agreed.

“I know this is probably not a big relief of expense for town businesses, but it’s one of the things we can do at the local level to show our support to local businesses,” he said.

Pushback on stay

Council Vice President Linda Ujifusa and council member Daniela Abbott, however, said they saw no need to suspend the town ordinance, which they said was passed after a great deal of time and effort.

Ms. Ujifusa said during her recent shopping trips, she has been putting purchased items directly into her cart. Then she wheels them out to her car, where she packs them into reusable bags. 

“We’re only talking about the brief moment between (the checkout) and cars,” she said, noting that shoppers already do that at BJ’s and other wholesale shopping centers.

Ms. Abbott agreed, and said passing the proposal would “take us 10 steps back.”

“This is not necessary. I feel there are other ways we can support small businesses. There are ways around this,” she said.

When one considers the transfer of the COVID-19 virus and how many different people are handling a customer’s food, “maybe no bags is the option,” Ms. Abbott said. According to the Centers for Disease Control, she said, the virus lives on plastic for 72 hours. “Plastic bags could be potentially more dangerous than paper bags.”

Council member Keith Hamilton, however, said many people walk to Clements’ to shop, so they would need a bag. As for BJ’s, bags aren’t an issue at that store because everything is in bulk. He also said he’s heard from small businesses. 

“The reality is, they’re going to run out of paper bags,” said Mr. Hamilton. “It’s six months. The world is not going to be destroyed by lifting a plastic bag ban.”

Council President Kevin Aguiar also supported the temporary allowance of plastic bags. 

“This is just a temporary (lifting) of the ban. At this point, every little bit helps,” he said, adding it could be “four or five months” before the state allows shoppers to use reusable bags again.

Mr. Aguiar, Mr. Hamilton and council members Andrew Kelly and Len Katzman voted in favor of the six-month stay of the bag band.

Ms. Ujifusa, Ms. Abbott and council member J. Mark Ryan voted against the motion.

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Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.