A man wears a protective mask while walking along the Eastern Promenade on Thursday. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Maine experienced the largest single-day jump in new coronavirus cases in nearly two weeks on Friday, as additional businesses reopened and the Mills administration moved to allow hotels to begin accepting out-of-state visitors in two weeks.

The state’s top public health official said the 54 new cases of COVID-19 represented “a step up from what we’ve seen in recent days,” but added that an investigation of the sharp increase had just begun Friday. The increase, the largest since May 30, comes at a time when roughly 20 states are experiencing spikes in COVID-19 cases.

“Maine CDC epidemiologists are undertaking the process of investigating each and every one of those cases to determine whether any are linked to known outbreaks or whether any might represent new outbreaks,” Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said Friday.

Friday marked three months since Maine CDC recorded the state’s first case of the COVID-19 disease caused by the coronavirus. Since then, the total number of confirmed or probable COVID-19 cases has risen to 2,721, according to the latest figures from Maine CDC.

The number of deaths among residents with COVID-19 held steady at 100 for the third straight day. Hospitalization rates of individuals with COVID-19 are also trending downward in recent weeks, although the number of hospitalized patients statewide rose from 29 to 32 from Thursday to Friday.

BUSINESS OPENINGS

Gov. Janet Mills cited that fact as well as Maine’s overall downward trend in declaring that “our plans are working” and announcing that hotels and other lodging businesses can begin accepting out-of-state visitors on June 26 rather than on July 1, as originally planned.

Out-of-state visitors will be required to complete a form stating they have tested negative for COVID-19 no more than 72 hours before arriving in Maine, or that they had quarantined for 14 days within the state before arriving at a lodging business. Visitors also qualify for testing in Maine, but will have to quarantine until results come back.

Friday was also the first day that bars, tasting rooms, fitness centers, nail salons and some other businesses could reopen to customers – with restrictions aimed at reducing transmission of the virus – in 13 of Maine’s 16 counties. Cumberland, York and Androscoggin counties were not included because community transmission of the virus is happening there.

“I’m pleased to interpret these most recent results as, at least, a plateauing of the critical numbers that Dr. Shah and his team have been monitoring from Day 1,” Mills said. “While 50-odd cases is not a great number or an optimistic number, it is a leveling-off, I think.”

Bars and tasting rooms in those 13 counties were allowed to resume outdoor service on Friday, although businesses are still required to space out customers. That represents a partial victory for the state’s growing number of micro-breweries, distilleries, wineries and cider houses.

At Saco River Brewing in Fryeburg, people started showing up before Friday’s 1 p.m. opening.

Like many breweries, Saco River Brewing has been offering curbside service and home delivery through the pandemic to the point where they often sold out of beer. But co-owner Ryan Vincent said that prior to Friday, his brewery was one of the only businesses in the town on the Maine-New Hampshire border that was not allowed to open.

That led to the odd situation where Fryburg restaurants could serve Saco River beer to patrons at their outdoor seating areas, but Vincent couldn’t pour one for patrons in his outdoor space.

“It’s been almost three months to the day that we served our last pint here so we are pumped to be able to get people back here … and to serve people outside,” Vincent said.

TRENDING DOWNWARD

The tally of active cases in the state – calculated by subtracting the 100 deaths and 2,105 individuals who have recovered from the disease from the total number of cases – increased by 11 Friday to 516. Maine’s active cases have been trending downward during the past two weeks, however, declining from an average of 628 for the seven-day period ending June 6 to an average of 548 cases for the period ending Friday.

Shah noted that while the investigation into the 54 new cases was just beginning, most of those cases occurred in Cumberland, Androscoggin and York counties, where the virus is believed to be circulating in the broader community.

The case count only captures a portion of the virus’s actual presence in Maine because not everyone suspected of having the disease has been tested, due largely to limited testing capacity during the first two months of the pandemic. Research has also shown that some infected individuals never exhibit symptoms.

Even so, Maine’s infection rate is lower than rates in most other states.

According to The New York Times’ detailed COVID-19 case tracking system, Maine has had 198 cases for every 100,000 residents, the 10th lowest rate in the country and the second-lowest among the six New England states. The rates in Massachusetts and Connecticut, both of which have been hit hard by the virus, were 1,519 and 1,247 infections for every 100,000 individuals.

Roughly 20 states have seen a spike in new cases during the past week or two, according to the New York Times and the Coronavirus Resource Center at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland. Texas, Arizona, North Carolina and Florida are among states that are seeing 1,000 or more new positive tests daily.

“Thankfully, Maine has not been among those but we remain concerned and vigilant for that possibility,” Shah said. “That’s why we take a look at the data every single day and look at not just the trends in the number of cases but also other indicators that are independent of testing, such as hospitalization rates.”

While it is still too early to draw definitive links, the spikes in cases around the country coincide with many of those same states relaxing their restrictions on businesses or lifting stay-at-home orders. The large-scale protests and racial justice rallies held nationwide have also likely increased the risk of transmission.

Shah noted that the percentage of test results that come back positive is declining overall in Maine and was down to 4.63 percent for genetics-based tests compared to more than 5 percent several weeks ago. The positivity rate among tests conducted only during the latest 24-hour period ending Friday rose to 4.25 percent from 2.69 percent Thursday.

Some business owners and trade groups, particularly in the hospitality sector, portray Mills’ reopening plan as overly cautious and predict it will not draw enough out-of-state visitors to Maine this summer to keep many tourism businesses afloat.

On Friday, representatives of the hospitality and tourism industries urged Maine to provide $800 million in bailout funding to businesses to help them avoid collapse and closure. Maine has received $1.25 billion in federal funding from the CARES Act passed by Congress.

Mills said she wants to hear from state lawmakers about priorities for that funding and is awaiting additional guidance from Congress on eligible uses.

“Clearly as the governor of this state, like my colleagues in the other states, we are very concerned about the effects of this pandemic on our economies,” Mills said. “But I can think of nothing more devastating to our economy than an outbreak or a resurgence of this deadly and untreatable virus at the height of our tourism season.”

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