The Mills administration on Wednesday unveiled an executive order – effective immediately – that requires businesses in Maine’s most populous cities to enforce mask-wearing rules inside their premises. Gov. Janet Mills had said last week that such an order was forthcoming.

The new order strengthens similar orders issued in late April and May that require people to wear face coverings in public settings where physical distancing is not possible.

Wednesday’s order now requires “large retail businesses, restaurants, outdoor bars, tasting rooms, and lodging establishments” in Cumberland, York, Hancock, Waldo, Knox, Lincoln and Sagadahoc counties, as well as the cities of Bangor, Brewer, Lewiston, Auburn and Augusta, to enforce the May executive order requiring masks in indoor public places. Masks are also required outside in areas where physical distancing is impractical.

“It is important that we wear face coverings as people begin to interact more and more,” Mills said in a statement. “Doing so can slow the spread of COVID-19, protect the health and safety of those around us, support businesses and allow us to safely reopen our economy. I know it may be inconvenient for some, but I also believe that Maine people care about each other, and this simple gesture is a small price to pay for knowing you could save someone’s life.”

Dr. Nirav Shah, Maine CDC director, said in a statement that “research shows that face coverings help limit potential transmission of the virus that causes COVID-19.”

“Wearing a face covering in public places where physical distancing is difficult shows respect for others and reduces the risk that the virus could spread as more people move about Maine,” Shah said.

The governor’s executive order mandates that businesses with more than 50,000 square feet of space require customers to wear face coverings inside their business. Mills’ order not only affects large retail stores, but restaurants, outdoor bars and tasting rooms, and lodging establishments in the targeted areas.

The order focuses on Maine’s larger cities and coastal regions, where large numbers of residents and tourists tend to gather during the summer. Under the order, municipalities may enforce the use of face coverings on streets and sidewalks, in parks and in other public spaces where individuals are not able to maintain at least 6 feet of physical distance.

Terms of the order allow any governmental department or official charged with regulating licenses, permits or occupancy of eating establishments, bars and tasting rooms, lodging operations and accommodations, parks and campgrounds to enforce the order.

The order encourages anyone who witnesses violations to file a report with the state. Her administration has established a reporting form for alleged violations of the state’s health and safety protocols. Each complaint will be reviewed by the appropriate enforcement agency.

Public reaction to the order was largely positive, although getting Mainers to wear masks, at least until now, has been hit or miss.

Last month, the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram visited several big stores in Brunswick, Topsham and Augusta. Seventy-five percent of customers were wearing masks, and no store turned away customers for not wearing one. Some retailers said a few customers have been belligerent and even spit on employees when they were told to wear a mask.

“Wearing a mask is the single best precaution one can take to prevent the spread of COVID-19,” David Rollins, mayor of Augusta, said in a statement. “Wearing one shows respect for others, respect for the businesses trying to survive, as well as respect for our elders and our most vulnerable populations. Please wear a mask to protect yourself, and those that you come near to. We are all in this together.”

Curtis Picard, president and CEO of the Retail Association of Maine, said he supports the order, but expects there will be a learning curve before compliance becomes widespread. The association represents 350 businesses, including large retailers such as L.L. Bean, Renys Department Stores and Home Depot.

“I think that everyone has been trying to make the best of the situation created by the pandemic,” Picard said Wednesday evening, acknowledging that it has been stressful for everyone. “It has been challenging because some customers are simply refusing to wear masks.”

Under the governor’s order, retailers can refuse service to a customer who won’t wear a mask, Picard said. One option for such customers might be to offer curbside pickup. Picard said that with the new rule in place, stores can post signs at entrances alerting customers that face masks are required.

Picard speculated that some businesses might have an employee outside the entrance to remind maskless customers about the rule. Picard said the governor’s office has assured him that local police and code officers are available if needed.

A spokeswoman for L.L. Bean said the outdoor retailer will comply with the order.

“We are supportive of any measures that prioritize employee and customer safety,” L.L. Bean spokeswoman Amanda Hannah said Wednesday evening. The company’s flagship store is located on Main Street in Freeport.

For many organizations, such as the Maine Grocers and Food Producers Association, making mask-wearing mandatory represents a natural progression in the battle to stop the spread of the virus. The association represents independently owned and operated grocery stores, supermarkets, and food and beverage producers and processors.

“Front-line employees have been essential to keeping our member businesses open and running throughout the pandemic. We owe them a debt of gratitude, not harassment, when they ask customers to follow guidelines such as wearing a face covering and maintaining safe social distancing – they are all working to keep us safe,” Christine Cummings, executive director of the association, wrote in a letter announcing the kickoff to the “Let’s Be Kind” statewide campaign that began airing public service announcements this week.

The campaign is being sponsored by the Retail Association of Maine and the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce.

The Mills administration recently awarded nearly $9 million in grants to 100 towns and cities under the Keep Maine Healthy Plan. The federal funding reimburses municipalities for costs associated with enforcement and education activities, such as staff time paid to a code enforcement officer, local health officer, or other government employee charged with educating local businesses on best health practices.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises people to use face coverings in public settings to slow the spread of COVID-19. Recent research indicates that a significant percentage of individuals with the disease do not experience symptoms, but can still transmit the virus to others. A face covering, though it may not fully protect the person wearing it, can reduce the chance of transmission to others.

In addition to issuing the order Wednesday, Gov. Mills extended Maine’s State of Civil Emergency for 30 days through Aug. 6. This allows the state to obtain federal resources to respond to the pandemic.

“As Maine continues to reopen our economy, we must remember this dangerous virus is still among us,” Mills said in a statement. “If we stay vigilant and take all necessary precautions to protect ourselves and those around us, like wearing a face covering, washing hands and staying six feet apart, then we can stay safe and healthy and limit the spread of COVID-19 in Maine.”

Mills’ decision to strengthen the state’s face mask requirement drew praise from U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st Congressional District.

“Governor Janet Mills is doing the right thing with this mandate. Wear a mask to protect your health and the health of fellow Mainers,” she tweeted Wednesday evening.

Maine now joins other states, including North Carolina, Nevada, Washington, Texas and Oregon, which all have implemented face-covering measures.

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