Maine is reinstituting restrictions meant to curb the spread of COVID-19 amid a resurgence of the virus in the state, Gov. Janet Mills announced Sunday.
While Maine has been one of the most successful states at controlling the virus, it's now dealing with a wave of new infections, this week reporting a significant increase in coronavirus cases, hospitalizations, and positivity rates.
Friday saw the highest single-day increase of COVID-19 cases in Maine since the beginning of the pandemic, with 103 new cases reported. Saturday saw another 98 new cases, and one more death. Meanwhile, Maine’s seven-day positivity rate has doubled over the last two weeks to 0.92 percent.
“If we do not control this outbreak, we may never get this evil genie back in the bottle,” Mills said.
Mills, a Democrat, says the new restrictions include lower indoor capacity limits and more limitations on travelers from out of state, including Connecticut. They will also postpone bar and tasting room reopenings.
“Epidemiological data and case investigations during the past week show that Maine is experiencing widespread community transmission,” said Dr. Nirav D. Shah, Director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. “Maine people and visitors can help limit further spread of the virus that causes COVID-19 by adhering to proven safety measures. Every time you leave your home, please do so with the intent of making Maine safer for yourself and others.”
Mills said like most people in the state, she is extremely concerned about the spread of coronavirus as we head into colder winter months and the holiday season, when large gatherings with friends and family are customary.
“Unfortunately, in this era, dinner parties and other traditional gatherings can play host to an uninvited guest: a deadly virus for which there is no treatment and no cure, a virus which is attacking babies, teenagers, Millennials and seniors alike in every region of Maine and all across the country," Mills said. "Each one of us must assume personal responsibility for our actions and do everything we can to get this virus under control.”
With the vast majority of Maine’s economy reopened under Stage 4 of the Restarting Maine’s Economy Plan, Mills said in order to keep the economy rolling and in order to keep schools open as much as possible, it's more important than ever that people avoid gatherings, stay six feet apart from others, use hand sanitizer, get a flu shot, wear a face covering indoors and outdoors, and wash their hands frequently.
“We can stem the tide of this virus, but it will require a team effort on the part of all Maine people. We are in this together," Mills said. "Maine people recognize that this is a fundamental matter of social and personal responsibility — like not driving on the wrong side of the road, like putting your young child in a car seat, like wearing a coat in cold weather.”
Here's a look at the new restrictions announced Sunday to prevent and mitigate the spread of the virus:
Reducing Indoor Gathering Limits
Large gatherings have long been a primary concern of public health experts. Given the recent surge in cases, indoor gatherings will return to a maximum of 50 people, regardless of capacity. The gathering limit on outdoor activities remains at 100 people under existing guidelines, with physical distancing and the use of face coverings. Occupancy limits for retail establishments will remain at 5 people per 1,000 square feet of shopping space.
The Mills Administration had previously increased indoor seating limits to 50 percent of permitted capacity or 100 people, whichever was less.
These changes are effective Wednesday, Nov. 4.
Postponing the Reopening of Bars and Tasting Rooms
There is scientific evidence that the unique environment of bars, including enclosed spaces where people gather with members outside their own household while talking loudly and not wearing face coverings, elevates the risk of COVID-19 transmission.
In light of this and rising COVID-19 case numbers in Maine, bars and tasting rooms that were anticipated to reopen to indoor seated service on Monday, Nov. 2, will now have to wait. The reopening of bars and tasting rooms for indoor seated service is postponed until further notice.
“To the business owners and employees of bars and tasting rooms, I am deeply sorry that we have been forced to make this decision to postpone your reopening to prevent the further spread of the virus. I know that you were ready and willing to follow public health guidance to keep yourselves and Maine people safe. We realize that this decision will cause hardship. We do not take this action lightly, but the rapid rise in cases in just the past six days means that we cannot in good conscience proceed with the planned reopening,” Mills said. “My Administration will continue to do all we can to support Maine’s small businesses and hardworking families through these challenging times and will continue to seek further financial relief from Congress for Maine businesses who have lost so much already.”
Heather Johnson, Commissioner of the Department of Economic and Community Development, acknowledged this continues to be a challenging time for small businesses across the country.
“We hope that the recent Maine Economic Recovery Grant Program has supported some of the businesses impacted, and we will continue to work to find creative ways to support businesses and their employees,” Johnson said.
State and local health officials will continue to evaluate public health metrics to determine when it is safe to reopen bars and tasting rooms for indoor seated service.
Extending the Keeping Maine Healthy Grant Program
To support Maine communities as they promote compliance with public health and safety measures, the Mills Administration extended its financial support to Maine municipalities established by the Keep Maine Healthy Plan. More than $13 million in federal CARES ACT funding was previously allotted to 132 municipalities and two Tribal governments to develop and implement their own COVID-19 prevention, education and protection plans.
These plans include printing and posting COVID-19 prevention information; developing local educational activities consistent with CDC guidelines; installing fences, tape, and signage for physical distancing in public spaces and closed streets; providing staff to limit crowds in front of restaurants and other public sites; purchasing and making available personal protective equipment and hand sanitizer at public locations; and supporting the purchase of extra cleaning supplies and added staff time for enhanced cleaning and management of public spaces and restroom facilities.
Plans may also support staff time for a Code Enforcement Officer, Local Health Officer, or other designated person to serve as the local contact for educating local businesses on best practices, following up on public complaints, and reporting public health violations to state officials if those complains cannot quickly be resolved through local efforts.
All eligible municipal expenses through December will now be reimbursed.
“Maine’s cities, towns and Tribal governments are invaluable partners in our work to keep Maine healthy during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Jeanne Lambrew, Commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services. “The extension of this program will bolster their creative efforts to educate residents, visitors and businesses about the importance of public health measures and ensure compliance with requirements.”
Adjusting States Exempt from Maine's Quarantine or Testing Alternative
People traveling from New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut are no longer exempt from Maine’s quarantine or negative test requirement. Effective Wednesday, Nov. 4, people coming to Maine from those states must either quarantine for 14 days or receive a negative COVID-19 test with a sample taken less than 72 hours from arrival in Maine, quarantining while awaiting test results.
This protocol includes Maine residents returning from one of the non-exempt states.
The travel decision was based on recent public health data, including other states' positivity rates. Mills said Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey demonstrated an alarming increase in prevalence of the virus when looking at certain metrics.
New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts remain exempt from the 14-day quarantine or negative test requirement, although the Mills Administration says it is closely evaluating public health metrics in Massachusetts and may reinstate the quarantine or negative test requirement if trends do not improve.
Even with the updated travel protocols, Mills strongly recommends that visitors from exempt states and Maine residents returning from exempt states, especially during the upcoming holiday season, obtain a test in order to “Know Before You Go.”
With or without COVID-19 symptoms, anyone in Maine who feels they need a test can get one without an order from a primary care provider, under the Department of Health and Human Services Standing Order.
The Mills Administration also recently announced it will distribute 400,000 rapid antigen tests, including 300,000 provided to up to 65 Walgreens pharmacy locations from Kittery to Madawaska. Testing will be available to the public at no charge as a drive-through service at a future date in November. Click here to find COVID-19 testing sites near you.
Elsewhere in New England
In the past week, Rhode Island significantly reduced its gathering limits. Massachusetts added Connecticut and New Jersey to its quarantine requirements, days after Connecticut and New Jersey added Massachusetts to their own coronavirus hot spot lists.
The University of Connecticut has placed a Stamford dorm that houses about 235 students under quarantine due to a handful of coronavirus cases. The decision came amid a surge in cases in Connecticut and elsewhere.
New Hampshire Republican Gov. Chris Sununu warned that coronavirus cases are rising in the state, and the increase could continue. New Hampshire recorded 205 new cases on Saturday, the largest single-day figure in the state since the start of the pandemic.
"The situation here in New Hampshire remains very serious, the data shows that community transmission is increasing, and we expect cases to rise,'' Sununu said. "We must all remain vigilant in our daily lives. As we enter these winter months, it will be more important than ever to wear your mask, practice social distancing, and maintain proper hand hygiene.''
The Associated Press contributed to this report.