Andy Pillsbury, assistant bar manager at the Great Lost Bear in Portland, puts barstools on the bar while closing up the popular restaurant and bar Wednesday. All restaurants and bars in Maine were required to stop dine-in service as of 6 p.m. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

AUGUSTA — Gov. Janet Mills ordered all restaurants and bars in Maine to close to dine-in customers and prohibited social gatherings of more than 10 people as the number of coronavirus cases climbed to 42 Wednesday.

The executive order Mills signed allows restaurants to continue offering takeout, drive-through and home delivery service, but prohibits patrons from eating or drinking inside those businesses. The mandatory closure began at 6 p.m. Wednesday and runs through March 31, a timeline that could change as the COVID-19 disease caused by coronavirus spreads in Maine.

Many establishments around Maine had voluntarily closed their doors or scaled back in recent days or were under local restrictions, such as those imposed in Portland and Bangor. By issuing a statewide mandate, Mills joined governors in more than two dozen states – including all of her counterparts in New England – who have imposed severe limits on bars and restaurants to help contain the coronavirus.

“We are taking this aggressive step to prevent transmission among people in close proximity to one another,” Mills said during a news briefing with the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention in Augusta.

The executive order also prohibits nonessential, non-work gatherings of more than 10 people, consistent with recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Those limits apply to “civic, public, leisure and faith-based events” as well as social clubs, sporting events, fundraisers, festivals, fairs or entertainment events.

Mills also recommended that nonessential “public-facing” businesses such as fitness centers, theaters, casinos, shopping malls and hair salons consider closing for the next two weeks. But even if they opt to remain open, such businesses would still be subject to the 10-person limit, according to a clarification from Mills’ office.

Neither the prohibition nor the closure recommendation applies to businesses that provide essential services, including: grocery and convenience stores, pharmacies, doctors’ and veterinary offices, child care centers, hardware stores, gas stations, industrial manufacturing, food processing, agriculture and hotels.

“I do not take these steps lightly,” Mills said. “Maine’s small businesses and their workers are the backbone of our economy, and I understand that these actions will not only impact them, but will also disrupt the lives of Maine people, people who work at and eat at our renowned restaurants and bars. However, COVID-19 continues to spread across Maine and experts have been clear that implementing social distancing that includes these measures is the most effective method to mitigate its spread and to protect public health.”

CASES CLIMBING

The number of confirmed cases of  COVID-19 in Maine rose from 32 to 42 from Tuesday to Wednesday after nearly doubling during the previous 24-hour period. Nationwide, the U.S. CDC reported just over 7,000 cases in all 50 states and 97 deaths.

Cumberland County has the highest concentration of cases, accounting for at least 23 of the 42 patients reported by Maine CDC. The breakdown for the other counties is: three in Androscoggin, one in Kennebec, three in Lincoln, one in Oxford, two in York and one in Penobscot. Eight other new cases are under investigation. Statewide, 1,670 people have tested negative for the disease.

“The experience in Maine is consistent with what we’ve seen in other parts of the country,” said Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine CDC. “What we look at now is not so much where the first cases are, because we know those are coming, we are also keeping an eye out on when we see evidence of community transmission.”

Community transmission happens when individuals contract the disease from an unknown source in the community rather than from a known infected person or from having traveled in other areas where the disease is established.

Shah said health officials are seeing evidence of community transmission in only Cumberland County so far, but he expects to see it happen in other areas of the state as the virus spreads.

Four patients had been hospitalized because of COVID-19 as of Wednesday, but one person already had recovered from the disease, Shah said. There also were three non-Maine residents, whose case management was “transferred” to their home states.

There have been concerns nationwide about shortages of not only testing kits but also the supplies needed to run those tests as well as protective gear such as masks, gloves, face shields and gowns worn by medical staff.

In an update sent to patients Wednesday, Martin’s Point Health Care in Portland said that testing kits and facilities “are still in short supply” and that the network is “only testing patients for whom confirmation of COVID-19 is critical for their care.”

Shah said the Maine CDC recently received a second test kit from the federal government containing the components of roughly 1,000 additional tests. Private, commercial labs are now also conducting tests in Maine without tapping into those supplies from the federal government.

Additionally, Shah said his agency just received more than 12,000 respiratory masks as part of large shipment of supplies from the federal government. But Shah acknowledged there are shortages of the “ingredients” needed to conduct tests, such as enzymes as well as nasal swabs to collect samples.

“The supply of them has been a concern and it is something we are keeping very close tabs on,” he said. “It is all the more reason why we are keeping an open line of communication with, for example, the strategic national stockpile and the U.S. CDC.”

NURSES NEEDED

Mills also used Wednesday’s event to sign a $76 million supplemental budget passed by the Legislature late Tuesday that includes additional funding for the Maine CDC and other coronavirus response efforts. Additionally, Mills signed legislation that will enable workers who are impacted by the coronavirus to more easily qualify for unemployment insurance.

The Maine CDC is responding to the outbreak at a time when it is trying to rebuild a public health program decimated under former Gov. Paul LePage. Key vacancies include 17 public health nurses, who are considered frontline staff during an outbreak.

Shah said $1 million in additional funding in Mills’ supplemental budget should make it easier for the CDC to recruit and hire additional nurses.

“In situations like this, where individuals are at home and may need social services and health care, our public health nurses are on the front line,” Shah said. “Hiring has been a challenge, but it is something that can be expedited more easily in light of the governor’s emergency declaration.”

Public health nurses are answering questions from clinicians and the public, while helping epidemiologists investigate positive cases.

Shah said public health nurses also are preparing to be deployed in the field, so they can provide medical care and wraparound social services to people who are isolated or quarantined at home.

Shah said those nurses also would be tasked with conducting any follow-up testing necessary to release someone who has tested positive and has been in isolation, since those patents cannot go to a clinic or emergency room without possibly spreading the disease.

RESTAURANT IMPACTS

The temporary closure of dine-in food and beverage service will have a major impact on the thousands of restaurants, bars and breweries across the state.

Restaurants raked in an estimated $2.5 billion in sales in Maine in 2018 and food service workers accounted for 10 percent of all jobs – or nearly 64,000 positions – last year, according to figures from the National Restaurant Association and Hospitality Maine.

“The governor’s announcement really didn’t surprise us,” said Greg Dugal with Hospitality Maine, a trade group representing the state’s restaurant and lodging industry. “We were the lone holdout (in New England) and I give the administration credit for giving us as much as time as we could to prepare for this.”

Dugal said his organization has been encouraging restaurants to explore their options for takeout or curbside delivery, if they don’t already offer those services. Still, he estimated that anywhere from 50 percent to 60 percent of establishments in the state may opt to shut down for the next two weeks.

“It’s not ideal,” Dugal said. “Just three weeks ago, we wouldn’t have had this conversation. But you have to adapt as best as you can in challenging times.”

Restaurant co-owners Jake and Raquel Stevens of Portland were among those who have been advocating for a statewide shutdown of dine-in service. About 50 other business owners had signed onto a petition circulated by the couple, who just opened a restaurant called Leeward last week, urging Mills to take stronger action.

Jake Stevens was pleased with Wednesday’s announcement and said it was “fantastic” that the state also was lifting the roadblocks to allow affected workers to access unemployment insurance benefits. And while he and his wife hope to bring back all 16 people they recently hired, he said the industry is going to take a huge hit.

“We are very happy with the steps that have taken place, but on a larger scale, this industry is going to need a bailout,” Stevens said. “That is not going to come from the state, but the state can help. … And a lot of people in the industry are talking to our (federal) representatives and senators about getting the hospitality industry included in any bailout.”

Staff Writer Randy Billings contributed to this report.

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