FREEPORT — As Maine’s summer tourist season reaches its peak, retailers and law enforcement heads report broad compliance with Gov. Janet Mills’ mask-wearing mandate, a measure public health experts say is critical to containing COVID-19.

Businesses report similar policies and experiences with enforcing the mandate, which was introduced April 29 and strengthened July 8 to require face coverings in the public areas of hotels, restaurants and large stores – and anywhere else where physical distancing is difficult – in most of Maine’s coastal counties and bigger cities. Resistance to wearing masks was uncommon at first, has became increasingly rare over time, and even in the more extreme instances has been successfully resolved by law enforcement without arrests.

Compliance is clearly not universal, as any Mainer who has been out shopping knows. On visits to a big box store or supermarket, one can usually encounter customers who are not wearing masks, and employees at some small businesses are often seen without masks. But pandemic tracking metrics suggest enough people are complying to keep the disease in check here, even as it has reached crisis proportions in the southern and southwestern United States.

“In the first few weeks we were allowed to be open in May, there were quite a few people who came in and objected to wearing a mask, but the bad news about the pandemic in the South and West really changed perspectives,” says Jeff Curtis, whose family has owned the Sherman’s chain of bookshops since 1962, with locations in the middle of the tourist districts of Portland, Freeport, Boothbay Harbor, Damariscotta and Bar Harbor. “At this point we see more of a sense of relief from people that everyone is wearing face coverings.”

Steve Mills, CEO of Maine Beer Co. in Freeport, whose enormous tasting room sprawls into the parking lot, saw a similar pattern. “For the first few days after we reopened we probably had 10 or 15 people a day who said, ‘I’m not going to do it,’ but now it’s down to about one, and half the time they agree to comply,” Mills says. The others, informed they will not be seated, have left without incident. “We get the eye rolls sometimes, but the compliance is 100 percent.”

Sherman’s and Maine Beer Co. have never had to call the police to deal with a customer who refuses to comply or to leave, but other businesses occasionally do.

In Scarborough, it happens about once a day, police Chief Robert Moulton says, while Falmouth police Chief John Kilbride estimates his officers respond to a couple a month. The Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office has responded to five such complaints since the governor issued her executive order.

No arrests were made or summonses issued by these departments or by the South Portland Police Department, whose territory includes the Maine Mall area.

Marita Klements hands Thomas Dodge her card to pay for a beer at Maine Beer Company on Saturday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“We have dealt with no issues that education didn’t resolve,” South Portland police Chief Timothy Sheehan said via email. “Fortunately we have seen a high level of compliance with the populations we serve respecting each other’s desire to remain virus free.”

Scarborough’s Moulton agrees. “So far we have been able to mediate these situations pretty well, and we haven’t had to have any enforcement actions,” he said. “If we did, it would be criminal trespass, rather than not wearing the mask, because the store owners have the right to not have people in the store.”

Portland police have been fielding far fewer mask-related complaints in recent months than they did when the reopening began. It is now “definitely not daily” in occurrence, city spokesperson Jessica Grondin said via email. She said the department also focuses on “education and conversations about personal responsibility (as opposed to enforcement).”

Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce also said his department emphasized education over enforcement but that it would enforce where “there is no voluntary compliance or there is a reckless disregard for the Governor’s Executive Order.”

In other parts of the country, retail employees have been attacked by customers who didn’t like to be told to wear masks. Security guard Calvin Munerlyn was slain outside a Family Dollar store in Flint, Michigan, after telling a customer her child had to wear a mask, and three Trader Joe’s employees were beaten by two maskless customers in Manhattan.

The fear of violence has led some retailers to tell their employees to yield to customers who insist on entering stores without face coverings, including Shaw’s supermarkets, a division of Albertsons. “If a customer refuses to wear a mask and to leave the store, we permit the customer to continue shopping in order to avoid conflicts that would put the store director or other associates and customers at risk,” the chain’s Massachusetts-based spokesperson, Teresa Edington, said via e-mail.

Ericka Dodge, a spokeswoman for Hannaford, would not say what the supermarket chain’s policy was for dealing with the adamantly noncompliant. “We recognize that there is an exemption for customers who are medically unable to wear a mask,” she said via email. “We need our customers’ help in keeping our associates and customers healthy.”

L.L. Bean spokesperson Amanda Hannah also wouldn’t directly answer that question but said via email that “our employees may notify authorities or deny access to a customer refusing to wear a mask.” She said there had been “very few issues” regarding customer compliance at its stores.

Christine Cummings, executive director of the Maine Grocers and Food Producers Association, said the anecdotal feedback she had been hearing was that face coverings “are becoming less divisive and the public is adapting to wearing them in an effort to help reduce the spread of COVID-19.”

“Front-line employees have been essential to keeping our member businesses open and running throughout the pandemic,” Cummings said. “We owe them a debt of gratitude, not harassment, when they ask customers to follow guidelines.”

Lindsay Crete, a spokeswoman for Mills, said via email that the governor had been encouraged by the broad compliance by Maine people with the measures, which “has contributed to Maine’s relatively low positivity rate, and that has allowed the economy to reopen in a safe manner.”

On Saturday morning, Maine had the lowest number of COVID-19 weekly new cases per capita in the country – 8 per 100,000 – according to a widely followed tracker at The New York Times, edging ahead of Vermont. By comparison, Massachusetts’ rate is 35, Georgia’s 208 and Florida’s 210 per 100,000.

“The Governor believes that all Maine people, regardless of political beliefs, want to stay safe and healthy; want to take care of the people around them and will act in a responsible way in the face of this continuing threat,” Crete added.

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