Workers scrape the paint off a crosswalk on Exchange Street in Portland, which the city has closed so that businesses and restaurants can operate outdoors. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Bars, tasting rooms, fitness centers and nail salons in 13 Maine counties will be allowed to reopen on June 12 after the Mills administration bumped up the original timeline in response to positive trends in coronavirus cases.

But the accelerated reopening plan will not apply to similar businesses in Cumberland, York or Androscoggin counties because of ongoing community transmission of the virus.

Gov. Janet Mills’ administration announced the changes on the same day that the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported 28 new COVID-19 cases but no new deaths. To date, there have been 2,446 confirmed or probable cases and 95 deaths of individuals with the COVID-19 disease caused by the coronavirus.

The number of individuals hospitalized with COVID-19 fell from 44 on Wednesday to 35 on Thursday while the number of people in critical care beds held steady at 14. Seven people with the disease were connected to ventilators because of respiratory failure, down three from the previous day.

Hospitalization rates and death trends are key metrics for tracking the progress of the virus and efforts to contain transmission. Intensive care beds and ventilators are critical tools for treating hospitalized patients, and epidemiologists closely monitor the demand for these resources as they study the spread of the disease.

Under the revised timeline, bars and tasting rooms will be able to resume outdoor service only starting June 12 in the following counties: Aroostook, Franklin, Hancock, Kennebec, Knox, Lincoln, Oxford, Penobscot, Piscataquis, Sagadahoc, Somerset, Waldo and Washington. The Maine Brewers’ Guild had urged Mills to allow them to reopen earlier to outdoor customers, consistent with restaurants statewide.

Additionally, gyms and fitness centers, nail salons as well as tattoo and piercing parlors may open on June 12 as long as they are following a checklist of health and safety guidelines aimed at reducing the risk of transmission.

“These updates come in light of low case-count trends in the 13 counties where the relative small number of cases has largely remained steady or decreased,” said Heather Johnson, commissioner of the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development.

POSITIVITY RATE FALLING

Mills’ administration has been gradually rolling back restrictions on businesses and social gatherings in recent weeks, although not as quickly as many businesses and some politicians would prefer.

Maine has among the lowest per capita coronavirus infection rates in the country, but continues to experience isolated outbreaks – some deadly – at long-term care facilities and workplaces.

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine CDC, noted Thursday that the rate of positive test results continues to decline. One of numerous metrics closely watched by epidemiologists in Maine and nationwide, the “positivity rate” can help illustrate the disease trajectory particularly as states ramp-up testing capacity.

Maine’s overall positivity rate dropped to 4.89 percent from 4.97 percent earlier this week, which is half the national rate. But Shah noted that the rate was 2.18 percent among the more than 1,500 tests conducted using the common PCR process, which looks for genetic materials of COVID-19 in samples.

Shah said Maine still has “a ways to go” before hitting the goal of 2 percent for total, cumulative tests.

“But these are signs that our efforts to expand testing, both in terms of capacity and the number of tests that are getting done on a day-to-day basis, are getting us where we need to be going,” Shah said.

At the same time, the Maine CDC released new data on Wednesday night showing total cases per ZIP code in Maine, allowing for significantly granular analysis than the countywide data previously released. A Portland Press Herald analysis of the data shows that Lewiston has the highest number of cases but parts of Portland had the highest per-capita infection rates.

CHANGES TO 14-DAY QUARANTINE

The Mills administration is under intense pressure to relax restrictions on the out-of-state visitors that are critical to Maine’s more than $6 billion tourism industry.

Johnson said the administration is working with hospitality businesses on ways to eliminate the current 14-day quarantine requirement for tourists visiting Maine from other states. Business owners and groups have said such a requirement could kill the summer tourism season and, with it, many Maine businesses.

Johnson did not provide specifics on Thursday, but said they are reviewing proposals from the lodging sector and other businesses for inclusion in a final plan, which could be announced early next week.

“We will continue to listen to feedback and ideas from businesses, communities and public health experts as we work to take additional steps to reopen Maine’s economy safely,” Johnson said.

BARS, TASTING ROOMS

Restaurants in all 16 Maine counties were allowed to resume outdoor service on Monday but only establishments in the 13 more rural counties can offer indoor service. The revised timeline announced Thursday will allow bars and tasting rooms in those 13 counties to also offer outdoor service.

Asked why bars and tasting rooms in Cumberland, York and Androscoggin counties were excluded when restaurants there can serve outdoors, Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services said “we want to pause on additional reopenings in the three counties” because of community transmission.

“We assess this on a day-to-day basis and we’ll be reviewing and revisiting that in the coming days and weeks,” Lambrew said.

Sean Sullivan, executive director of the Maine Brewers’ Guild, said that 77 of Maine’s 149 licensed breweries may be able to reopen their tasting rooms on June 12 under the revised plan. Roughly 80 percent of breweries statewide are licensed to serve alcohol outdoors.

The remaining breweries – many of which are concentrated in the Greater Portland area – may have to wait until July 1 unless the Mills administration makes further adjustments.

Maine has the second-highest number of breweries in the nation on a per capita basis, and those breweries drew an estimated 9 million tourists – or one in every five tourists – in 2017. With many breweries dependent on the summer tourism season to cover their expenses for the year, the pandemic is having a severe impact on the industry, Sullivan said.

“It’s a step in the right direction, to be sure,” Sullivan said. “It still leaves a number of our breweries that are literally next to a restaurant that can serve people, but they cannot, which is frustrating. … But it is a step in the right direction, and we trust all of our breweries to be able to meet the health and safety guidelines.”

ACTIVE CASES DECLINING

The new day-to-day case numbers fluctuate significantly, particularly when new outbreaks are discovered. The number of people recovering from COVID-19 has surpassed new cases for most of the past week, however.

After accounting for the 95 deaths and the 1,739 people who have recovered from COVID-19, the Maine CDC was reporting 612 active cases of the disease on Thursday, a decrease of 12 from the previous day.

Looking back over previous weeks, Maine averaged 657 active cases for the seven-day period ending Thursday compared to 703 active cases for the week ending May 29. The 14-day average as of Thursday was 608.

On Wednesday, Shah first reported that CDC staff were investigating 13 positive cases at an Eldredge Lumber and Hardware facility in York County. The agency had recommended all workers at the facility be tested. And as of Thursday, the number of positive cases had held steady at 13.

Similarly, Maine CDC’s lab was processing results from the universal testing of employees of the Tambrands manufacturing facility in Auburn that is owned by Procter & Gamble. As of Thursday, seven employees had tested positive for COVID-19. The facility has 365 employees as well as more than 100 contractors.

Related Headlines


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.