Gov. Janet Mills on Monday announced an alternative to her 14-day quarantine mandate for out-of-state visitors, a decision she said is possible because of expanded testing capacity both in Maine and in the home states of many tourists.

Mills said that beginning July 1 out-of-state visitors will not have to comply with the quarantine if they have tested negative for COVID-19 within 72 hours of arriving in Maine. Visitors from nearby Vermont and New Hampshire, which both have low case counts like Maine, will be exempt entirely as of Friday, meaning they can come to the state without abiding by the quarantine and without a negative test.

Pedestrians cross Old Orchard St. in Old Orchard Beach with a sign encouraging visitors to wear masks on May 22. Staff Photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

The governor’s softening of her quarantine requirement comes after weeks of discussing alternatives, during which she faced mounting pressure from those who felt keeping the mandate would cripple Maine’s tourism season. Her shift hopes to balance real economic concerns about Maine’s tourism industry with keeping the state’s vulnerable population safe amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“There’s no question that the COVID-19 pandemic has loomed large over our tourism industry,” Mills said during a news conference Monday. “We’re trying to save the lives and livelihood of Maine people.”

However, the easing of restrictions did little to placate the tourism industry, with one official saying Mills’ loosening doesn’t go far enough to help the state’s struggling businesses.

“Each day that goes by without a workable solution is another day losing business we will never see again,” Maine Tourism Association CEO Tony Cameron said.

Before the news conference, Mills’ administration also announced, in partnership with Westbrook-based Idexx, the creation of a new mobile testing laboratory in Augusta that by next month will allow the state to process an additional 25,000 tests per week – quadrupling current capacity. This builds on a partnership between the state and Idexx that was announced last month.

In addition to the new mobile testing lab, DHHS will develop 20 “swab and send” sites across Maine to allow people to be tested as close to their homes as possible. This adds to the nearly 40 current testing sites already available to the public.

Finally, DHHS issued a standing order Monday that allows most people in Maine with elevated risk to get a COVID-19 test without a separate order from their health care provider. The hope is that people who might be at risk – including health care workers and first responders, seasonal and migrant farm workers, people experiencing homelessness, visitors from other states with a higher prevalence of the virus, and others – seek testing.

Monday’s announcements came as several key metrics the state has been tracking – emergency room visits with flu-like symptoms, potential COVID-19 emergency room visits, new cases and new hospitalizations – are all trending downward. The number of new cases Monday – 18 – is the lowest single-day total since May 12. Over the last 10 days, the number of new cases per day has averaged 36.2, which is down from an average of 48.5 cases during the previous 10-day period.

So far, there have been a total of 2,588 confirmed and probable cases since mid-March and 99 people have died with COVID-19. Of that total, 1,891 (73 percent) have recovered, leaving 598 active cases. To date, 301 individuals have been hospitalized at some point, including 37 people currently, 12 in critical care and seven on a ventilator.

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.

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said Monday that two outbreaks – one at Hope House, a shelter in Bangor, the other at Edgewood Rehab, a long-term care facility in Farmington – are now closed.

Shah also said that of the 1,185 tests that were processed by the state’s lab on Sunday, 19 were positive, which equates to a positivity rate of 1.6 percent. Maine’s overall positivity rate is now under 5 percent and Shah has said the goal is to get that under 2 percent, which would mean the state is casting a sufficiently wide testing net.

He said the state’s ability to expand testing further next month will allow people who might have been exposed or people who are in high risk settings to get tested with or without symptoms and also without a doctor’s authorization.

Maine Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew said the state already has been exceeding federal CDC guidelines on testing. States are advised to test a minimum of 2 percent of their population each mouth. In May, Maine conducted 37,000 tests, which exceeded that minimum by about 40 percent, Lambrew said. The extended partnership with Idexx ensures that will continue for many months, and Lambrew said it potentially could be used to test children before they head back to school in the fall.

Mills stressed that Maine’s expanded testing is not meant to serve out-of-state visitors. Those individuals, she said, are being asked to get tested in their home state.

Places of lodging, such as hotels and campgrounds, will be asking out-of-state visitors to sign certificates indicating that they tested negative. Those certificates will be held for compliance checks but not as part of an overall database, the governor said.

Asked how the new policy would be enforced, Mills said that if businesses are not asking patrons, they would be in violation of her executive order. Similarly, if out-of-state visitors refuse to sign a form indicating they have tested negative, they also would be in violation.

“We believe people will want to comply,” said Heather Johnson, commissioner of the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development.

In addition, the state said tourism-focused businesses will be conducting symptoms checks with patrons to help ensure people who might have developed symptoms can be kept from others.

Now that the tourism season has arrived in full, Mills said the state will increase signage on major roadways and at entrances to state parks reminding people of what is expected of them. She also said the state has begun offering financial incentives to municipalities – paid for with federal stimulus funds – to increase their public health prevention and education efforts.

The governor said that while Maine’s case counts – and deaths – have remained low, she and her team plan to monitor trends closely and she reserved the right to update any of her safety measures.

Several states that reopened sooner than Maine, including California, Texas and Florida, have all seen rising case numbers in recent days, according to the COVID-19 Tracking Project.

There also are questions about whether the sustained protests that have taken place across the country, including in several Maine communities, could lead to more spread of the virus. The protests, which began in response to the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25, are likely to continue as calls to address systemic racism and police conduct grow louder.

It’s more likely that any current upticks are related to economies reopening rather than the protests given the incubation time of the virus and the average amount of time it takes for someone to develop symptoms and get tested.

Shah said the protests have happened outdoors and from what he’s seen, a lot of people have been wearing masks. But he also said that protests often come with shouting or chanting that could help spread the virus. He urged those participating in protests to protect themselves and also to consider getting tested.

 

Staff Writer Peter McGuire contributed to this report.

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