A day after Gov. Janet Mills announced bars would be allowed to reopen on Nov. 2, statewide COVID-19 infections spiked, with 48 new cases Wednesday.

Ten of the cases were in York County, seven in Androscoggin County, and two in Cumberland County. Hospitalizations remained low, with nine people in the hospital Wednesday, two in intensive care.

After subtracting previous probable cases that turned out to be negative, the state had a net gain of 39 cases. No additional deaths were reported.

Maine started October with lower daily case counts in the 20s and 30s. In September, there were several surges in cases and numerous outbreaks in York County.

Two people walk along Free Street in Portland. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

In York, Coastal Ridge Elementary School will be closed Thursday because “an individual at Coastal Ridge Elementary School has recently tested positive for COVID-19,” according to a letter by Superintendent Lou Goscinski. “The individual has not been in school this week. Although the (Maine) CDC has not required the York School Department to close the school, I have ordered the school building closed for one day.”

Public health experts consider bars a major risk factor for COVID-19 spread, but state officials Tuesday contended that with new restrictions in place, bars will function more like restaurants. Restaurants reopened this spring and summer with new restrictions in place. Bar reopenings were put on hold after they were found to be vectors of super-spreading events in other states.

Reopening bars and tasting rooms were part of the governor’s “Phase Four” announcement, which includes allowing additional capacity for restaurants and other indoor gatherings starting Oct. 13.

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.

Restaurants have also been labeled higher-risk, but bars have been tagged by public health experts as places where the virus can easily be transmitted. In one example, a bar in Michigan was connected to nearly 200 COVID-19 cases in June.

“I don’t think bars should reopen right now,” said Dr. Roger Shapiro, associate professor of immunology and infectious diseases at Harvard University, in a conference call with reporters Wednesday. “Bars in particular are among the riskiest settings.”

Bars are considered riskier than restaurants because people are more likely to talk loudly, which can spread the virus more easily. And people are more likely to mingle with others in bars than they are in restaurants, Shapiro said.

Regardless of advice from epidemiologists, most states are forging ahead with opening bars. In an analysis published on Sept. 14, the Washington Post found that Maine was then one of eight states that hadn’t opened bars. New Hampshire, Vermont and Rhode Island have permitted bars to reopen, but they are still closed in Massachusetts and Connecticut.

Many states are imposing restrictions on bars designed to limit the spread of the virus, such as capacity limits.

“We must continually adjust the balance between protecting Maine’s residents and increasing safe re-entry into businesses, schools and other parts of pre-COVID life, particularly with the winter approaching,” Jackie Farwell, a spokeswoman with the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, said in an email response to questions.

Farwell pointed out that Maine has among the best metrics in the country for controlling the virus, including the second-lowest positive test rate in the nation, behind Vermont, according to the Harvard Public Health Institute.

Several Maine bar owners said they generally support the administration’s move.

But Jesicca Nolette, owner of Flask Lounge in Portland, said Wednesday that it is too risky to reopen right now, and not feasible for a smaller building like hers, which couldn’t be easily converted into restaurant-style seating.

“While I am extremely eager to reopen, I will only do so when everyone is comfortable and confident with promoting, hosting and attending events,” Nolette said. “It breaks my heart to be inside the emptiness that is Flask right now, but it would be devastating to reopen and risk the health of the Flask staff and community, as well as the health of our patrons.”

Bars that closely follow the new rules should operate more like a restaurant in terms of seating and how customers move about the business.

For example, 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,” according to a checklist released by the Department of Economic and Community Development.

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).”


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