Mainers are driving more and taking more nonessential trips than in the weeks immediately following the issuance of local and statewide stay-at-home orders more than a month ago, according to vehicle traffic statistics and publicly available smartphone location data.

But movement around the state still remains far lower than before the pandemic hit Maine in mid-March.

Although active COVID-19 cases and deaths linked to the disease are still increasing in Maine, the state has succeeded in slowing the spread of coronavirus and protecting its health care system from becoming overwhelmed.

A Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention spokesman did not directly answer whether the agency was concerned about data that appear to show more people moving around the state.

“Maine CDC does not track mobility. We have used information provided by the Maine Department of Transportation and publicly available data from cellphone companies in some of our modeling,” spokesman Robert Long said. “Maine CDC continues to recommend that residents, especially those in high-risk groups, abide by the physical distancing guidelines.”

More vehicles appear to be on state roads, but traffic is still far below normal levels. Statewide vehicle counts were 41 percent lower in the first week of May compared with the same time last year, according to the Department of Transportation.

But in some places, traffic has been creeping back upward from a low point in early April when Gov. Janet Mills issued a statewide stay-at-home order. The traffic on Interstate 295 around Freeport and Brunswick on Friday was at least 55 percent higher than the first Friday in April, according to an analysis of MDOT data.

Traffic on I-295 increased by 34 percent around Portland and by 38 percent around South Portland during the same period.

Companies following mobility trends based on anonymous smartphone data also indicate more movement in Maine in recent weeks.

New York-based “human mobility” company Unacast reported an increase in distance traveled in the first week of May, as some businesses in the state were allowed to reopen.

There was only a 25 to 40 percent reduction in average mobility statewide in the first seven days of May compared with mobility before the pandemic, giving Maine a D+ letter grade for reduction in movement, according to Unacast, which maintains a social distancing scoreboard. For most of April, the reduction in mobility was at least 45 percent, according to the company.

Mainers appear to be taking more nonessential trips, too. The Unacast scoreboard shows that last week the reduction in nonessential trips compared with before the pandemic was less than 55 percent, giving Maine an F grade.

The COVID-19 Data Mobility Network, a group of infectious disease epidemiologists that uses anonymous Facebook data to track mobility, shows wide day-to-day variations in movement across Maine, but a gradual increase compared with its February baseline.

The “stay-put” percentage dropped from a peak of 35 to 42 percent in the state’s 16 counties in late March, to 20 to 25 percent last week, according to the network’s analysis. The stay-put metric measures the percentage of people in a county that remained within their home area over three consecutive eight-hour time periods during a single 24-hour day.

Travel is expected to keep increasing in Maine as the state gradually restarts parts of its economy and some people feel safer going out.

Leaving the house to get outside at parks and on hiking trails could have an upside for Mainers’ health, said Rebecca Boulos, executive director of the Maine Public Association.

“Staying home can increase sedentary behavior and increase screen time,” Boulos said.

Especially with warmer weather on the way, “we want to support people being active and being outside in nature, assuming they are following public health guidance,” she added. “We have seen that some parks and trails are busier than others, so if folks need to go a little farther and visit one that’s less busy, I think that’s OK.”

Some public-facing Maine businesses, including barber shops, hair salons, golf courses and pet groomers were allowed to reopen more than a week ago with restrictions to protect employees and customers.

Last week, Mills said retail stores, restaurants and fitness centers could reopen with restrictions in 12 rural counties without community transmission of the virus. That announcement was driven by ramped-up testing capacity in Maine beginning this week through a partnership with Idexx Laboratories in Westbrook. The partial opening in the 12 counties does not change the strict closures in place in Maine’s other four counties.

Most retail stores in Cumberland, York, Penobscot and Androscoggin counties will have to remain closed until June 1 as part of the multiphase reopening plan outlined by the governor last month.

Dr. Dora Anne Mills, the chief health improvement officer at MaineHealth, said she’s seen an increase in traffic around Portland and isn’t surprised more people are getting out and moving around.

“I think a lot of people have been postponing trips that may increasingly become essential,” such as doctors visits, said Mills, the governor’s sister and a former Maine CDC director.

As warmer weather and longer days approach, people will be tempted to take more nonessential trips and spend time outside their homes.

“I think it is certainly expected to see some increase,” Dora Anne Mills said.

As travel and movement increase, Mainers can manage the inherent risk by maintaining physical distancing measures such as staying 6 feet apart and avoiding crowds, wearing masks or face coverings and cleaning their hands.

“We’re all itching to get out; we’ve all got cabin fever,” she said.

There may be a chance that the virus will weaken in warm weather, but public health officials are bracing for another surge in cases over the autumn and winter. Without widespread vaccination, people – particularly those who are elderly or have underlying health conditions – remain threatened, she said.

“We have to get used to a new normal, and that is masking, keeping socially distant and washing our hands a lot,” she said. “We want to minimize this disease spread as much as possible and open the economy as much as possible.”

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