Andy Pillsbury, assistant bar manager at Great Lost Bear in Portland, closes up the popular restaurant and bar in March. Restaurants such as the Great Lost Bear that also serve alcohol are allowed to offer indoor dining service, with restrictions, but bars have not been allowed to offer indoor service. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Gov. Janet Mills announced Monday that the state is postponing the reopening of indoor service at bars because of concerns about the higher risk of COVID-19 transmission in such settings.

The administration’s reopening plan had tentatively scheduled bars to resume indoor service July 1, but those plans were shelved “until further notice” Monday as health officials in other states reported a number of outbreaks linked to indoor bars.

Bars and brewery tasting rooms can continue to serve drinks outdoors, and restaurants that include bars can continue to seat patrons at indoor tables as part of earlier phases of Maine’s economic reopening plan. The state’s liquor licensing agency has been working to expedite requests from bars seeking to expand outdoors.

But state health officials said the nature of many bars increases the risk of transmission of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

“Indoor bar service typically features crowds, often in close contact with one another, often without tables or other ways of keeping people apart,” said Jeanne Lambrew, commissioner of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. “Smaller spaces in many bars makes physically distancing very difficult. Further, individuals may be less likely to wear cloth face coverings in bars.”

The change affects Class A Lounge license holders, a group that includes bars and taverns that don’t have kitchens, as well as brewery, distillery and winery tasting rooms without restaurant licenses. Such businesses can still serve in outdoor areas but will not be able to resume indoor service even with the capacity limits and table-spacing requirements that allowed many restaurants to reopen.

Although likely disappointing for some bar owners, the news was not entirely unexpected. Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said last week that the Mills administration was reconsidering the July 1 reopening date amid growing reports of outbreaks in other states that have allowed indoor bar service.

On Monday, health officials in Boise, Idaho, ordered bars to close again and rolled back their phased reopening plan after a spike in COVID-19 cases triggered, in part, to outbreaks tied to several bars. Outbreaks tied to bars have also been reported in Florida, Texas and other states, some of which are seeing record numbers of cases.

“These are sizable outbreaks,” Shah said during Monday’s briefing on the COVID-19 situation in Maine. “We are particularly concerned about the employees in these (Maine) bars as well. When you have such a high number of staff members who are falling ill, that heightens our concerns as well.”

But Greg Dugal with Hospitality Maine, a trade group that includes hotels, restaurants and bars, said many of the businesses in Maine are different from the pool halls and clubs linked to outbreaks in other states.

“They are small Maine businesses trying to make a go of it and once again being stymied by fear of the unknown,” Dugal said. “Hospitality businesses have opened around the state with little to no issues. I don’t see this license class as being any different.”

In a statement, Mills called the postponement decision “difficult but necessary.”

“While we believe this is the most prudent step to protect the health and safety of Maine people, we recognize that it will frustrate some businesses and patrons,” Mills said. “The administration will work with these businesses to help them open for outdoor service to the extent they may be able to do so. Meanwhile, we will continue to monitor the prevalence of this deadly virus and take whatever steps necessary to protect people as we continue the gradual reopening process.”

The Maine CDC reported 14 new cases of COVID-19 on Monday but no additional deaths among individuals with the disease.

To date, there have been 2,971 confirmed or probable cases of COVID-19 in Maine, according to the latest figures from the Maine CDC. At least 102 people have died after contracting COVID-19.

Maine continues to record new cases of the coronavirus – including a cluster in Aroostook County reported on Sunday – but the average number of daily cases has declined somewhat in recent weeks.

For the seven-day period ending Monday, Maine averaged 23 new COVID-19 cases per day, compared with an average of 32 cases daily for the week ending June 15. Looking at the two-week rolling average, Maine had 27 new cases per day, compared with an average of 37 cases for the 14-day period ending June 8.

After accounting for the 102 deaths and the 2,406 people who have recovered from the disease, Maine CDC was reporting 463 active cases of COVID-19 on Monday. That is a decrease of one from Sunday and is slightly lower than the seven-day average of 470 active cases.

Maine’s positivity rate – the percentage of test results that come back positive for COVID-19 – has also edged downward in recent weeks, and public health officials say that is a favorable trend, especially as testing capacity and access to testing expand around the state.

Hospitalizations tied to COVID-19 are also declining, although the number of hospital patients inched up by one, to 27 on Monday, while the number of patients being treated in intensive care units rose from 11 to 13.

“That is certainly encouraging news,” Shah said of the overall trends. “But at the same time, as we’ve seen in states particularly in the Sun Belt, there are parts of the country that are experiencing record numbers of daily cases – over 4,000 cases per day just recorded in Florida alone. So for those reasons, although we have seen encouraging trends in Maine, we still remain vigilant for the possibility of an uptick in cases here.”

There are also disconcerting trends.

For instance, Maine had the worst racial disparity in the nation among COVID-19 patients as of last week. Black residents accounted for 27.6 percent of cases of the disease as of Sunday despite representing less then 2 percent of the state’s population. The majority of those cases appear to be clustered in Cumberland and Androscoggin counties, both of which have sizable communities of recent immigrants from African nations.

Those disparities have highlighted the longstanding inequities among Maine’s small-but-growing minority communities regarding housing, job security, access to health care and transportation.

The Maine CDC has been working with health and community groups in communities with larger immigrant populations to increase education about COVID-19 and to expand access to testing and services for infected people and their families.

Dr. Nirav Shah said working with racial and ethnic minority communities is a top priority for his agency, along with working to prevent or contain COVID-19 cases in nursing homes and other congregate care settings.

“Neither the commissioner (Lambrew) nor I find any of the numbers we’ve seen to be acceptable at all,” Shah said. “They are categorically unacceptable and I would say our top priority right now is to try to get things continuing to move in the right direction.”

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