Maine is taking steps to loosen restrictions on large gatherings at outdoor events as state officials say a growing body of research shows outdoor spaces present a lower risk to the spread of COVID-19 than previously believed.

The Department of Economic and Community Development announced on Wednesday that large gatherings for groups up to 100 people will be permitted starting Saturday, although the limit of 50 people will remain in place for indoor events.

The announcement also does not change the updated guidelines for outdoor spectator events the state released Friday that allow for crowds of up to 200 as long as people remain in separate groups of no more than 50 people each and adhere to other restrictions.

Though many performing arts and concert venues already have canceled or postponed shows and performances for the season – and the Port City Music Hall announced Wednesday that it is closing permanently because of the pandemic – some say the new guidelines offer a glimmer of hope.

“We’re excited,” said Elissa English-O’Brien, director of regional relationships for Northern Hospitality, which manages and owns Thompson’s Point in Portland. “We feel ready for it. Our team has been practicing on a much smaller scale and a lot of this has become a way of life over the last 30 to 45 days. We feel really prepared to do this in a way that will be safe for them and safe for attendees.”

While Thompson’s Point has been offering some events for groups of no more than 50 people since June, English-O’Brien said they are preparing to increase capacity in keeping with the 200-person guidelines released last week.

On Thursday they’ll hold their first such event, a Pic-Nic-Ette, where attendees will be separated into four different outdoor spaces, or “rooms,” with their own entrances and exits. “In the center of that we’ll have entertainment, so no matter which room you’re in you can still can visually see and hear, but we won’t have people crossing over into separate rooms,” English-O’Brien said.

She said the separation of spaces will be enforced by security and guests will be given colored wristbands corresponding with the “room” they belong to.

“We’re going to explore everything and anything,” English-O’Brien said. “We’re definitely feeling like it’s going to be a long time before people feel comfortable being in indoor spaces and so we’re trying to put to use every outdoor asset we have.”

Nell Shipman, artistic and executive director of the Portland School of Ballet, said that while the ballet does not typically offer summer performances and has not yet released a fall schedule, the guidance for outdoor spectator events could be helpful for performing arts groups.

“Any sort of availability for performing arts organizations to present what we do I think is important to consider, even if it’s not used by everyone,” Shipman said. “We do what we do to present it to an audience and it’s hard when you can’t do that in a group that’s more than 50 people or so. Unfortunately, we would love to hold these events for the 50 people who can gather, but we don’t have the money to make that a viable option. If there are ways to have more gatherings of people in a safe way, I do think it’s beneficial for performing arts groups.”

The guidance released Wednesday keeps in place the requirement that face coverings be worn at all gatherings. In addition, no more than five people per 1,000 square feet are allowed at outdoor gatherings.

The guidance does not change Friday’s updated rules for seated outdoor spectator events, like professional sports and concerts, which will remain subject to the restriction that groups of between 50 and 200 people be separated into groups of no more than 50 each. Zones must be separated with physical barriers to prevent intermingling and there must be separate entrances and exits, bathrooms and concessions.

Michael Mulligan, owner and operator of Thomas Point Beach in Brunswick, a campground and event venue, said the state’s guidelines, while possibly helpful for some, will likely not work for him. “It’s good for small venues like theaters or churches who can clearly hold more than 50 people but their maximum capacity is around 200,” Mulligan said. “It’s better than nothing, but 200 people certainly isn’t a lot.”

Earlier this month the state shut down a weekend music festival at the campground that was expected to draw 400 to 500 people. Mulligan said he has found the guidelines impractical.

For example, if an event were cordoned into four sections all required to have their own concession areas, Mulligan said it would be difficult to bring in food trucks and limit them to just one section of an audience.

“You’re bringing in one food truck company and they have to have four installations, which doesn’t make a lot of sense,” he said. “Or you have four different food trucks, in which case you’re picking which section you want to be in based on which food you want to eat.”

Mulligan said he is planning to follow the guidelines for drive-in movie theaters and will be offering drive-in concerts starting next month, which will give him an opportunity to turn more of a profit than if he were to hold 200-person events.

“I’m super excited about it,” Mulligan said. “I think it will be great and it will allow us to go further into the fall. As it gets colder, people still have heaters in their cars. So it’s a format we’re going to try to embrace.”

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, cautioned at a media briefing Tuesday that while the risk of infection outdoors is a lower, it is not zero.

“There seems to be more data emerging with respect to the relative safety of outdoor activities,” Shah said. “The key there is relative. There are no zero-risk scenarios. Relatively speaking, there seems to be some added protection from being outdoors.”

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