Jay Villani, owner of Local 188 in Portland, sits in the dining area at the restaurant on Tuesday. “People are still nervous, but this will definitely help,” he said of the governor’s executive order allowing restaurants to increase their seating capacity.  Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Maine is moving into Phase Four of its COVID-19 reopening plan, increasing indoor seating capacity on Oct. 13 and allowing bars and tasting rooms to reopen on Nov. 2.

The move to loosen restrictions comes just two weeks after public health officials expressed grave concern about community spread of the virus in York County, where there have been 17 outbreaks – although case counts have been lower in the past week.

Despite the recent outbreaks in York County, Gov. Janet Mills on Tuesday characterized the plan as a “prudent step that balances public health with economic health.”

Numerous restaurant and bar owners contacted Tuesday welcomed the loosening of restrictions on indoor gatherings, but said they don’t intend to relax the safeguards they’ve put in place and will proceed with caution to protect their employees and customers from contracting the highly contagious virus. Bars have been among the last businesses required to stay shuttered during the pandemic.

The administration released new rules that state officials contend will protect public health by imposing restrictions that will keep people from mingling and make bars function more like restaurants.

“Maine has reopened the vast majority of our economy while maintaining one of the lowest rates of COVID-19 transmission (in the country),” Mills said during Tuesday’s media briefing. “We have balanced public health with economic health. As winter approaches, we have to continue this difficult balancing act.”

The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported 27 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, and no additional deaths.

The loosening of restrictions also will allow more people at indoor seated establishments, such as restaurants, bars and churches. The new rules will allow those places to expand to 50 percent of capacity, or 100 people, whichever is lower.

The current indoor limit is 50 people.

Places where people are more often standing or exercising, such as gyms, will continue to have a 50-person limit. The outdoor limit of 100-person gatherings remains.

Research has shown bars to have a greater risk factor for spreading COVID-19, and they have been vectors of some super-spreading events in other states, such as a bar in Michigan that was connected to nearly 200 cases in June.

Jay Villani, the owner of Local 188 on Congress Street, near Portland’s Longfellow Square, applauds Mills’ handling of the pandemic and said only a couple of customers have objected to wearing masks and have had to be turned away.

“I think she has done a fantastic job and I am happy to do my part,” he said.

“People are still nervous, but this will definitely help,” Villani said of the governor’s executive order. “I’m in favor of her opening things up, as long as everyone does their part, that they be respectful of the rules, and that they wear their masks.”

Villani has fought through the pandemic by offering customers patio, sidewalk and limited indoor dining. His restaurant has a seating capacity of about 120 people, but he would be reluctant to allow more than 50 people inside this winter.

As of Nov. 2, Villani also will be able to reopen Local 188’s indoor bar. He’s not sure that would be a good idea even though he has lost business due to the pandemic.

“I’m still on the fence about the bar,” Villani said. “I need to be smart about it.”

Local 188’s bar could typically serve 15 customers. Villani is thinking six customers at a time might be doable, but the risk of exposing an employee to COVID-19 may outweigh the economic benefits.

Jay Villani, owner of Local 188 in Portland, will be allowed of open his indoor bar as of Nov. 2, but he’s not sure he will. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

“My concern is the health of my employees. If I don’t have employees, then I don’t have a business,” he said.

Joe Christopher owns 3 Dollar Deweys in Portland’s Old Port, as well as eight other restaurants across the state, including the Saltwater Grille in South Portland.

“Loosening the restrictions is good for everyone because it restores the public’s confidence,” Christopher said. He said the new guidelines won’t significantly affect 3 Dollar Deweys, which serves pub food and drinks. The restaurant’s seating capacity is 250, but under Mills order he won’t be able to accommodate more than 100 diners.

Despite the seating restrictions, 3 Dollar Deweys has kept busy during the pandemic.

“We’ve been doing well because people want to be able to eat out,” he said.

At Solo Italiano, an Italian restaurant on Commercial Street in Portland, general manager Jesse Bania said he is comfortable with the latest order from the governor.

“I think it’s too early to say if it’s good, but it won’t change the way we do business,” Bania said. He views the governor’s relaxing of indoor seating rules as a way to reward bars and restaurants for persevering through hard economic times. He also says he has no doubt Mills will reverse course if COVID-19 infections should increase.

Solo Italiano has a bar, but it’s a dining room bar where customers don’t mill about or sit for long periods. Business during the summer months at the restaurant was pretty steady, boosted by outdoor dining options at Solo Italiano. Bania said he plans to discontinue the outdoor dining service this weekend. His staff will continue to adhere to state health guidelines when diners move indoors. The restaurant also offers curbside pickup.

“We don’t want to jeopardize our reputation or the safety of our guests,” Bania said. “We are not going to take anything for granted and we plan to move forward. We just want to make until next summer.”

Virus “still very much with us”

Other measures, such as requiring mask wearing in indoor public places and physical distancing, remain in place, and enforcement of masks will now be statewide, as opposed to in Maine’s coastal counties and major cities.

The reopening plan also applies masking requirements to more places, such as private schools and municipal buildings.

Mills said in a statement that “these adjustments, however, should not lure us into a false sense of security. This virus is still very much with us all across the state.”

Jeanne Lambrew, Maine’s health and human services commissioner, noted that new rules that apply for bars and restaurants are designed so that bars function more like restaurants.

For example, according to a checklist released by the Department of Economic and Community Development, all customers regardless of whether they are at a bar or restaurant “must remain with their dining party and not mix with other dining parties.”

Also, “all patrons at tables, bars, and counters must have a seat and must be in their seats except when walking in, picking up their order (if applicable), traveling to and from the restroom, and leaving the establishment. Customers should not stand/mingle in any counter or bar area (i.e., groups should not interact with each other).”

Restrictions could be reimposed

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine CDC, said that while the state is moving forward with further reopening, a surge in cases and overall worsening of the pandemic in Maine could result in the state reimposing restrictions that had been phased out.

When asked about the possibility of high school sports this winter, Lambrew said state officials will soon be working with the Maine Principals’ Association to plan for a winter sports season.

“In the same way we approached fall sports – and we do have fall sports, just in a different way than we’ve had before – our goal is the same.  How do we allow children, students to engage in sports in a safe way?”

Maine is having a shortened fall sports season, with football moving to a 7-on-7 touch or flag football season, and volleyball restricted to outdoor practices. Football and volleyball may be played this spring.

After accounting for previously reported probable COVID-19 cases that turned out to be negative, Maine had a net increase of 20 cases on Tuesday, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Spikes in statewide cases in September raised alarms among public health experts, including two days of daily cases in the 50s and three days when cases topped 40.

But through the first six days of October, daily case counts have stayed in the 20s and 30s, with three of the past four days in the 20s.

York County, which has been the epicenter of outbreaks in recent weeks, recorded five new cases on Tuesday, while Cumberland County, the state’s most populous, had four new cases. Androscoggin County reported five new cases.

Since the pandemic began, Maine has tracked 5,565 cases of COVID-19, with 142 deaths. Hospitalizations declined from 10 on Monday to seven on Tuesday, with one patient in intensive care.

President Trump, coronavirus and flu

President Trump, who has contracted COVID-19, returned to the White House on Monday evening after spending three days at Walter Reed Medical Center. In a tweet on Tuesday morning, Trump incorrectly said influenza was deadlier than COVID-19. Twitter has flagged the tweet for misleading information.

“I don’t think anyone should rely on Donald Trump for their medical advice,” Mills said.

Public health experts say initial research has shown COVID-19 to be at least several times more deadly than influenza, and the experience in the United States this year bears that out.

The U.S. typically has between 12,000 and 61,000 deaths caused by influenza every flu season, which runs from October to May, according to the U.S. CDC.

So far, COVID-19 has caused about 210,000 deaths in the United States, despite lockdowns being in place during the spring and other measures since then to limit the spread, such as wearing masks, physical distancing and testing. Influenza has a vaccine which is typically about 40 to 60 percent effective because there are many different flu strains and scientists must predict what strains will be circulating months in advance.

Scientists are working on several promising COVID-19 vaccine candidates. A vaccine could be approved by the Food and Drug Administration later this fall, with possibly widespread distribution in 2021.

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