In preparation for the start of indoor dining this week, Ann MacAusland disinfects a table in the dining room at Duffy’s Tavern and Grill in Kennebunk on Monday. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Gov. Janet Mills announced Monday that restaurants in Cumberland, York and Androscoggin counties can resume indoor dining on Wednesday, citing “encouraging trends” in Maine’s COVID-19 infection and hospitalization rates since May.

Bars, breweries, fitness centers, nail salons and tattoo parlors in those three counties also will be able to operate under the same rules already in place in Maine’s 13 other counties. That means, starting Wednesday, bars and brewery tasting rooms from Kittery to Brunswick as well as the Lewiston/Auburn area can begin serving outdoors, while gym patrons can head back inside as long as the facilities follow health and safety guidelines.

Mills originally delayed the reopening timeline for businesses in Cumberland, York and Androscoggin counties because of increased COVID-19 case numbers, outbreaks and hospitalizations in late May. But hospitalizations have since declined and the daily case numbers, while fluid, appear to be stabilizing overall in the three counties.

“We have been watching those trends and we think it is safe enough right now to make these changes,” Mills said during the daily briefing with the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Maine CDC reported 17 new cases of the COVID-19 disease caused by the coronavirus on Monday, as well as one additional death. To date, 2,810 people have tested positive for COVID-19 in Maine or are categorized as “probable” due to close contacts with an infected individual or a positive antibody test.

The number of deaths among individuals with COVID-19 inched upward to 101 on Monday after holding steady at 100 for nearly a week. The latest death was identified as a woman in her 40s from Androscoggin County.

Maine has been averaging 30 or more new coronavirus cases daily since last Wednesday and hit a two-week high of 54 cases on Friday, so Monday’s 17 additional cases represents a downward shift.

After subtracting those 101 deaths and the 2,189 individuals who have recovered, the Maine CDC was reporting 520 active cases of the disease. That is the same number as Sunday.

The number of active cases has been declining overall in recent weeks in Maine, as have hospitalizations among individuals with COVID-19. Maine averaged 513 active cases per day for the seven-day period ending Monday, compared to 607 active cases for the week ending June 8.

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine CDC, also pointed out that the seven-day rolling average of molecular-based tests that come back as positive had fallen below 3 percent for the first time as of Monday. Cumulatively, the positivity rate for the 71,485 molecular-based tests processed so far in Maine stood at 4.57 percent on Monday.

“These trends, again, show that we are pointing in the right direction, but that we’ve all got more to do in order to drive at least that seven-day, rolling positivity rate as low as possible,” Shah said.

Thirty-one people were hospitalized with COVID-19 as of Monday, which is up two since the previous day, and there were 11 people in critical care units and four people were connected to ventilators.

In another potential sign of how things are changing, Shah announced that he is scaling back his closely watched daily briefings to three times a week – on Monday, Wednesday and Friday – rather than every weekday.

DINE-IN, ONCE AGAIN

The Mills administration caught many restaurant owners and employees by surprise on May 27 when it delayed dine-in service in Cumberland, York and Androscoggin counties. At the time, case numbers and hospitalizations were increasing in those three counties, all of which are experiencing “community transmission” of the virus.

The decision infuriated some restaurant owners, who had been buying supplies and prepping staff to reopen to indoor dining along with the rest of the state on June 1. All restaurants statewide can offer outdoor service as long as they space out tables, and staff follow detailed health and safety guidelines.

David Cluff, owner of Duffy’s Tavern & Grill in Kennebunk and Old Orchard Beach, was “excited” to hear the news and said his restaurants will indeed re-open to indoor dining Wednesday.

Following the state’s health and safety protocols for indoor dining means that seating at both restaurants will be “greatly reduced,” he said, “but takeout is not enough for us to survive on, so we are looking forward to opening our dining room as well.”

Duffy’s Kennebunk restaurant does not have space for outdoor dining, but he’s installed picnic tables at the Old Orchard Beach location and has been offering old-fashioned carhop service. Cluff said he plans to continue offering takeout and delivery at both locations even after the dining rooms open because “we know some of our guests still have concerns.”

Additionally, the soon-to-be-lifted restrictions on outdoor service for bars and tasting rooms will be welcome news for southern Maine’s brewing and distilling scene, particularly in the Greater Portland area. With roughly 150 breweries, Maine has one of the nation’s highest concentrations of breweries per capita.

Roughly 80 percent of Maine’s craft breweries are licensed to offer outdoor service, according to the Maine Brewers’ Guild.

“We’re grateful that Governor Mills has accelerated the timeline for the reopening of Maine brewery tasting rooms,” Sean Sullivan, executive director of the Maine Brewers’ Guild, said in a statement. “Maine brewers around the state are looking forward to once again serving fresh, local beer to customers safely. We’d also like to raise a toast to all Mainers, because we want to say thanks to everyone for their collaboration in helping flatten the curve so that this could happen.”

With Monday’s announcement, Mills said Maine is now reopening the state’s economy “on par or even ahead of other northeastern states.”

But the governor noted that other states – such as Texas, Florida and Arizona – are experiencing record infection numbers after easing restrictions on the public and businesses. Mills said such experiences “should be a cautionary tale for Maine and for all of us.”

“It is possible, if not likely, that these changes we are making will result in an uptick in cases and we’ll be keeping a close eye on epidemiological data, as we have from the start,” Mills said. “If a review of that data finds evidence of a concerning increase in COVID-19 cases or risks of danger to the capacity of our healthcare system, we will move to protect Maine people. That could mean possibly re-implementing some of the restrictions that we have lifted in order to protect the public health and safety.”

Last week, Mills announced that out-of-state visitors to Maine could avoid the mandatory 14-day quarantine if they can show that they tested negative for COVID-19 no more than 72 hours before arriving in the state. Alternatively, tourists and other out-of-state visitors could be tested in Maine but would have to self-quarantine while awaiting test results.

Under that revised plan, hotels and other lodging establishments will be able to once again cater to out-of-staters starting on June 26. But many business owners and hospitality industry representatives fear the testing requirement will be too high of a bar for many out-of-state tourists to choose to vacation in Maine during the economically critical summer season.

Although figures vary daily, the Maine CDC lab has been analyzing roughly 1,500 tests per day and expects to be able to increase that capacity to more than 4,500 per day next month under an expansion of an existing partnership with Westbrook-based Idexx Laboratories.

But case numbers are rising in some other states, raising questions about whether Maine could see a surge as well. Public health officials in Maine and across the country also will be watching closely to see if there are any correlations between new cases and the large, racial justice protests and rallies being held nationwide in recent weeks.

Staff Writers Meredith Goad and Ray Routhier contributed to this report.

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