Fore Street in Portland’s Old Port was quiet and rainy Sunday night. Earlier, Gov. Janet Mills announced rollbacks of reopening plans in response to the recent surge in COVID-19 cases. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Gov. Janet Mills announced a significant rollback of Maine’s reopening plans on Sunday in response to a recent COVID-19 surge that saw the largest-ever number of new cases in the state on Friday.

Mills has reduced indoor gathering limits, postponed planned reopenings of bars and tasting rooms, and lowered the number of states exempt from Maine’s travel restrictions. The increased restrictions drew a mixed reaction from business owners, who acknowledged the health concerns behind it, but, in some cases, wondered whether they’d be able to survive much longer.

“If we do not control this outbreak, we may never get this evil genie back in the bottle,” Gov. Mills said in a statement Sunday afternoon.

Indoor gatherings were expanded on Oct. 13 to 100 people or 50 percent of permitted occupancy, whichever is lower. Now the limit will move back down to 50 people, regardless of capacity.

The gathering limit on outdoor activities will remain at 100 people, and occupancy limits for retail businesses also will stay at five people per 1,000 square feet of shopping space, according to an announcement Sunday from the governor’s office.

People traveling to Maine from New York, New Jersey and Connecticut are no longer exempt from Maine’s requirement to quarantine for 14 days or receive a negative test, because of rising COVID-19 numbers in those states. New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts remain exempt for now, though the Mills administration on Sunday urged visitors from those states to get tested anyway.

And Maine’s bars and tasting rooms will no longer be allowed to reopen on Monday for indoor seated service, as had been planned. The Mills administration said the postponement would last “until further notice,” as public health officials monitor the data for signs that it’s safe to resume indoor service.

The decision will likely be hard on owners of bars and tasting rooms who planned to reopen this week. Mills acknowledged the financial difficulty in her announcement, and promised to continue supporting the state’s small businesses, including by seeking more money from Congress.

“To the business owners and employees of bars and tasting rooms, I am deeply sorry that we have been forced to make this decision to postpone your reopening to prevent the further spread of the virus,” Mills said in the statement. “I know that you were ready and willing to follow public health guidance to keep yourselves and Maine people safe. We realize that this decision will cause hardship. We do not take this action lightly, but the rapid rise in cases in just the past six days means that we cannot in good conscience proceed with the planned reopening.”

Some bar owners last week said that a rollback in reopening could be devastating to their businesses, which are prime targets for coronavirus safety measures, given that they typically bring people close together indoors.

Margaret Lyons, owner of the The Snug, a pub on Congress Street in Portland, said last week that not being able to reopen could force her to repay a loan she received under the Paycheck Protection Program passed by Congress.

The bar has been closed since March, and has virtually no outdoor seating. Lyons said she had spent considerable effort preparing to reopen on Tuesday, including removing half of her seating, ordering Plexiglas for the bar, installing sanitation stations and setting up a system to collect patrons’ contact information so that tracers from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention can reach them if there’s an outbreak.

“Honestly, I’m at my breaking point. I have done everything. Everything,” Lyons said. “We are ready. My bar is safe. … We are all barely hanging on. If I could have a word with the governor, I would beg her to just let me open.”

A staff member cleans the windows of The Snug, a bar in Portland’s East End, on Friday. Signs letting customers know about the bar’s reopening hang in the window. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographe

About an hour after the governor’s announcement on Sunday, a profanity-laden post appeared on The Snug’s Facebook page excoriating the restrictions and asking why other institutions – such as schools, restaurants and hair salons – were allowed to remain open while bars were not.

“You’re punishing me for the spread, and I wasn’t even (expletive) open,” the post says, in part.

Later on Sunday, Lyons said in an email that her business likely would be able to survive, for now.

“I am incredibly lucky to have a very sympathetic landlord,” she said. “Between his understanding and the irony that I have enough money from an emergency loan left over to make payments on said emergency loan for a little while longer, I should be able to hang in there a while longer.”

But she also asked why restaurants and craft breweries with space for large enclosed tents are able to stay open, while she can’t.

“My biggest objection is that my bar is as safe as any business that is currently allowed open (and for the record, I am not saying any business is safe to open),” she said in the email. “I have followed the exact same guidelines in preparation to reopen. My staff is trained and ready to ensure everyone’s safety, same as a restaurant. But for inexplicable reasons, the bar is shuttered. Can one not drink just as much at a bar (as) in a restaurant?”

Outbreaks have been traced to bars in other states that have reopened. In Michigan, health officials linked nearly 200 cases to a single pub in East Lansing, and in Louisiana, authorities were forced to reverse their reopening after 400 people were infected at bars.

In June, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease authority, urged Americans to stop congregating inside in bars. “Bars: really not good, really not good,” he said at the time. “Congregation at a bar, inside, is bad news. We really have got to stop that.”

Fauci’s comments came at a time when parts of the country were reopening bars for full service, without some of the precautions that Maine businesses were preparing to take this week. But he has still admonished Americans to stick to outdoor gatherings, with masks and social distancing, wherever possible.

Dave Aceto, co-owner of Arcadia National Bar in Portland, said he understood both the frustration felt by bar owners and the need to keep employees and patrons safe.

“We’re in a world where there are no right answers,” he said in a phone interview Sunday. “You’re choosing between your financial and your physical health, because at some point you have to make money.”

Arcadia has been closed since lockdowns began and, with little curbside space and a stable of immobile arcade machines, has been unable to welcome patrons outside as other businesses have done. Aceto hadn’t planned to reopen this week – “The science is telling us to stay closed,” he said – but he said he felt other bar owners’ frustration about being singled out compared to restaurants.

“It’s frustrating that bar owners and tasting room owners are not trusted to keep people safe when restaurants are,” he said. “I’m not even given the opportunity to show that I can have 25 people safely playing arcade games and drinking beer.”

Still, Aceto said, “the health of my employees is number one, and right now I don’t feel comfortable putting them at risk.”

The Portland Hunt & Alpine Club was open for outdoor seating Sunday night. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Briana Volk, co-owner of the Portland Hunt & Alpine Club in Portland with her husband, Andrew, said the schedule change wouldn’t affect the Market Street bar because, like Arcadia, they weren’t planning to reopen for indoor service on Monday.

“At Hunt we had no plans to reopen indoors because we do not believe it is safe for our staff, guests or community,” Volk said in an email Sunday. “Our plan is to remain outdoor-only dining until Dec. 31. We are glad Gov. Mills is making the tough choice to protect our community and is working to keep everyone as safe as possible. I’m sure it was not an easy choice to come to.”

The new restrictions will affect more than just bars and tasting rooms. Don Littlefield, manager of The Maine Brew Bus, which brings tour guests by bus to learn about the craft alcohol industry in Maine, said the end of exemptions for New York, New Jersey and Connecticut visitors could cut into the company’s plans to resume business in November.

“Our vehicles have now been parked since early March,” Littlefield, who also serves as public liaison for the Maine chapter of the U.S. Bartenders’ Guild, said in an email. “For more than three months running, we have exclusively conducted open-air tours to explore the industry by walking, biking, boating, and running.”

Maine Brew Bus had been making plans to resume bus-based tours in mid-November based on the Mills administration’s past announcements that indoor service at bars and tasting rooms may resume. Of the 720 guests who have joined the company’s open-air tours, 56 percent live in those now non-exempt states, Littlefield said.

“The loss of those leisure travelers to freely enter Maine will severely impact any of our plans for the future,” he said.

Along with the heightened safety precautions, Mills will extend a grant program that supports municipalities’ efforts to contain the novel coronavirus. The Keep Maine Healthy Plan has already distributed more than $13 million to communities to fund education and COVID-19 prevention, including the purchase of masks, hand sanitizer and informational signage in public spaces.

Mills signaled on Friday that changes may be coming to pandemic safety regulations after a week of high daily case totals. Maine’s seven-day average for daily new cases rose to 78.3 on Saturday, a dramatic increase from daily averages closer to 14 in mid-August. On Friday, the Maine CDC reported a record 103 new cases, followed by another 101 on Saturday.

Mills’ press secretary, Lindsay Crete, said Friday that the governor was considering changes to indoor gathering limits, the list of states currently exempt from quarantine and testing requirements, and the reopening date for bars, tasting rooms and distilleries, among others.

“Like most Maine families, Gov. Mills is very apprehensive about the spread of this deadly virus as we face colder weather and holidays that generally encourage gatherings of all sorts. Unfortunately, if we do not each take aggressive actions, this virus will be the uninvited guest to our family dinners and social gatherings,” Crete said.

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine CDC, warned on Saturday that Maine is “nearing a phase of exponential growth, if we haven’t entered it already.”

“It’s easy to think you’re flying until you hit the ground,” he said on Twitter, perhaps referring to Maine’s success – until now – in maintaining low case rates as the virus surges around the U.S.

On Thursday, Mills extended for another 30 days the state of emergency under which she has issued executive orders restricting public gatherings and mandating masks in public spaces, among other precautions.

When that extension ends, in late November, it will mark more than eight months under an emergency declaration that began when the coronavirus first was detected in Maine in March.

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