A woman walks on a largely deserted Congress Street in Portland on Monday morning. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Gov. Janet Mills signaled on Wednesday that she is considering changes to her reopening plan, including allowing more outdoor activities – such as seating for restaurants and sales of merchandise – as well as permitting rural areas to open more quickly as pressure mounts to loosen restrictions during the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic.

Mills did not provide any details but indicated there may be some changes to the plan in the next few days. She discussed the options at a media briefing where the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention announced that another Mainer had died of COVID-19 and reported 28 new cases of the disease caused by the coronavirus, bringing the total number of deaths to 62 and cases to 1,254.

Mills also said she is launching an Economic Recovery Committee to help revive the economy in the long run, but the group will not address the reopening plan or related public health issues during the pandemic.

The governor’s current plan gradually reopens sectors of Maine society, easing limits on gatherings from 10 to 50 starting in June, and also permitting more sectors of the economy to reopen, with an eye toward loosening most restrictions by September.

New Hampshire, in its reopening plan, is permitting restaurants to seat customers outside starting on May 18. Mills said there are talks along those lines in her administration. Current restrictions forbid all in-person dining at Maine restaurants through the end of May.

“We are thinking about making some changes before Memorial Day,” Mills said.

Research has linked coronavirus transmission to indoor settings, and has found little evidence of outdoor transmission of the virus, including a Chinese study in April that reported two of 318 outbreaks occurred outdoors, while the remaining were in indoor spaces.

When asked about plans in Rockland to close a portion of Route 1 to vehicle traffic to allow merchants to sell their wares outdoors and open up outdoor seating for restaurants, Mills reacted positively, saying she is encouraging new ways to think about how to serve customers.

“We want to allow more outside activities, more activities under tents,” Mills said. “We want to keep downtown businesses alive and well. That is a great idea to consider.”

Mills also said she would consider looking at quicker reopenings in areas with very few cases of COVID-19, such as rural areas of Maine.

“We are hearing from a lot of different people, different ideas about how we might be able to reopen at an earlier stage or in a particular geographic area. It’s a public health issue and an economics issue. We are trying to meld those two priorities every day, every hour,” Mills said.

The governor’s plan has been criticized by those who believe it is too restrictive, causing further economic damage.

In one high-profile case, Sunday River Brewing Company in Newry is defying state orders by allowing dine-in customers. And In Orrington, a church filed a federal lawsuit against the governor on Wednesday, arguing that her ban on in-person worship violates the constitutional right to religious freedom.

Much of the ire directed at Mills is from customers and business owners in Maine’s hospitality industry, which is looking at a grim tourist season filled with canceled summer festivals and parades, and continuing restrictions, including a 14-day quarantine for all visitors to Maine this summer. Mills administration officials have said repeatedly they are looking at alternatives to the 14-day quarantine, especially during July and August.

“It’s not about politics or popularity. This is about protecting the lives of Maine people, that is our highest priority,” Mills said.

Mills is convening a 37-member Economic Recovery Committee to address how to boost Maine’s economy as it recovers from a pandemic. Co-chairing the committee will be Laurie Lachance, president of Thomas College, and Josh Broder, CEO of Tilson. The committee will not be part of reopening discussions, but will deliver a report by December, Mills said.

“These recommendations will serve in part as a bridge between the economic emergency caused by the pandemic to the restart of the state’s 10-year economic development strategy released last year,” she said.

The Maine CDC reported a new outbreak on Wednesday, four cases – three residents and one staff member – at Springbrook Center in Westbrook, a skilled nursing center that offers rehabilitation, post-hospital and long-term care services.

Of the 1,254 total cases, 1,174 were confirmed by testing, and 80 were probable cases, in which a person was not tested but had symptoms of COVID-19 and contact with an infected person. A total of 766 people have recovered, an increase of 25 since Tuesday.

There are now 426 active cases, an increase of two since Tuesday. The number of active cases reached a peak of 446 on April 17 and has since been below that level. Public health experts agree that a decline in cases for at least two weeks is one of the most important criteria for determining whether it is safe to begin reopening the economy. Active cases are calculated by subtracting the number of recoveries and deaths from the total number of cases.

There were 37 people hospitalized with COVID-19 on Wednesday, including 18 in critical care and 12 using a ventilator to support their respiration, the Maine CDC reported. The state had a total of 320 critical care beds, of which 162 were available, and 318 ventilators, of which 288 were available. In addition, there were 395 alternative ventilators available.

The new case total does not include 14 of the 51 cases reported at Tyson Foods, a poultry processing plant in Portland, Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine CDC, said at the news briefing Wednesday. Those cases will be added to the total on Thursday. Shah said all testing has now been completed at the plant, where cases were first detected last week.

The plant will remain closed until at least Thursday, Shah said, as test results come in and Maine CDC staff continue to work closely with facility managers.

The company said Monday that numerous changes were being made to better protect employees. Those include installing partitions between workstations, issuing and requiring use of face coverings, erecting tents for additional break areas, checking employees’ temperature and changing policies to encourage sick employees to stay home.

Maine’s infection growth rates are trending in the right direction, although Shah and other experts also warn of the potential for a sudden reversal or a second wave of cases if people become too lax in taking steps to avoid transmission.

Maine had the sixth-lowest per capita infection rate for COVID-19 – with 92 cases out of every 100,000 residents – among the 50 states and the District of Columbia, according to the latest figures from the U.S. CDC. Maine’s death rate of five fatalities for every 100,000 people places it among the lower half of states, according to daily tracking done by The New York Times.

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