Gov. Janet Mills announced on Thursday a 9 p.m. curfew on all restaurants, movie theaters, tasting rooms and casinos as daily coronavirus cases jumped above 200 for the fourth time and hospitalizations set a new record.

The limits on operating hours – part of new restrictions aimed at tamping down Maine’s rate of COVID-19 cases – will begin Friday and extend through Dec. 6. The 9 p.m. closing time will apply to all establishments that provide indoor dining and drink service, bars and tasting rooms that offer outdoor service, movie theaters, performing arts venues, social clubs as well as both indoor and outdoor “amusement venues.”

“As we enter the colder months and a holiday season when we customarily gather with friends and family, we are also entering a new and dangerous phase of the pandemic,” Mills said in a statement. “Since the beginning of this pandemic, we have been performing a balancing act, basing our decisions on science and medical expertise, weighing the safety of reopening with the necessity of getting back to business. This targeted and temporary step will reduce extended gatherings while keeping the businesses open.”

Mills also warned that “other steps may be necessary in the coming weeks if we do not get this virus under control.” And she again urged residents to wear masks, practice physical distancing, wash their hands frequently and avoid gatherings.

“It’s very disappointing,” said Steve Hewins, president and CEO for Hospitality Maine, an organization that represents more than 1,300 hospitality-related businesses statewide. “I don’t understand the science or rationale behind this curfew, but it’s just one item that is making it difficult for places like restaurants and bars to continue to do business.”

Hewins said that while the governor has cited students traveling during the upcoming holiday as her rationale for imposing the curfew, he’d like to know more.

“Where is the science that shows eating dinner or having a drink after 9 p.m. is an added danger,” Hewins said. “One of the reasons Maine’s overall COVID rate has been so low is that Vacationland’s restaurants and hotels have performed exceptionally during the pandemic, especially during the busy summer and fall when the state was flooded with visitors.”

Hewins said it feels like the state is singling out the hospitality industry for the actions of Mainers who refuse to wear masks or practice physical distancing. He said the majority of Hospitality Maine members and their employees adhere to federal and state health guidelines, adding that the state has said that community transmission of the virus is being escalated by “small, private gatherings” as opposed to eating at a restaurant.

Shaun McCarthy owns Dock Fore, an Old Port restaurant that has been in business for 40 years. McCarthy said he can live with a 9 p.m. curfew. Most of his customers head home by then and business has been so slow at other establishments they’ve been letting their workers leave early, he said. Dock Fore was scheduled to close at 11 p.m. Thursday.

“It could be a lot worse. In all honesty, people are not going out at night anymore,” McCarthy said, adding that other Old Port bar and restaurant owners he has spoken with have made the same observation. “It has been deadly quiet at night. I think most people are hunkering down.”

“Hopefully, everyone can suck it up for two more weeks,” he said.

The additional restrictions – similar to limits imposed on businesses in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont and New York – were announced on a day when state health officials reported 215 new cases of COVID-19 and one additional death.

Thursday marked the 11th consecutive day that the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention has reported more than 100 new cases of the coronavirus and the fourth time in 11 days that there have been more than 200 new cases. The additional death raises the total to 24 so far in November compared with just six in all of October.

The latest fatality was a woman in her 40s from Kennebec County – only the sixth death in Maine of someone under the age of 50.

Hospitalizations increased Thursday to 88. Of those, 35 individuals are in critical care and 12 are on ventilators.

“That is the most number of people we have had hospitalized w/COVID,” Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah said Thursday on Twitter. “Please think about them when you are deciding whether to wear a mask.”

Exactly one month ago, there were just eight individuals hospitalized with COVID-19. Hospitals across the state have begun preparing for an additional surge in patients and many have the ability to convert beds to critical care if needed.

A poster for Stay the Course – Portland’s COVID-19 information webpage – is affixed to a lamppost on Congress Street. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

Since the pandemic began, the Maine CDC has tracked 9,734 total confirmed or probable cases of the disease in the state, as well as 171 deaths among individuals who contracted COVID-19. More than 30 percent of the state’s total cases have come this month.

Maine’s seven-day average of new cases stood at 194 as of Thursday, compared to 173 one week ago and just 32 a month ago. The number of active cases was 2,160 after accounting for the 171 deaths and the 7,403 individuals who have recovered from the disease. That is an increase of 40 since Wednesday. New cases were reported Thursday in every county except Piscataquis. Cumberland County led the way with 54 cases, followed by Penobscot County (40), York County (31), and Androscoggin County (21).

For months, Maine’s daily case totals were among the lowest in the country, bottoming out at an average of 14 cases per day in early August and never going above an average high of 40 cases per day since late May. But starting in mid-October, the virus began rising rapidly across nearly every area of the state as the long-anticipated fall or winter spike arrived earlier and with more force than state officials and health care professionals had hoped.

The Maine CDC said Wednesday that it will no longer investigate probable cases of COVID-19 in individuals who haven’t tested positive even if they have had contact with someone who has.

Investigations into probable cases have been used to try to determine the source of the virus and alert others who may have had close contact with a positive case. The state defines a close contact as any person who was within 6 feet of a COVID-19 case for 15 or more minutes.

During a news briefing Wednesday, Shah said the onset of cold and flu season is likely leading to the increase in probable cases of COVID-19 being reported across the state because cold and flu symptoms are similar to those for COVID-19: fever, runny nose, difficulty breathing.

Shah encouraged people to take advantage of widespread testing that is becoming more available. On Thursday, the Maine Department of Health and Humans Services announced that an additional 52 Walgreens pharmacies will begin offering free drive-thru rapid antigen testing beginning Friday. Ten Walgreens locations opened for testing last week.

Cases have been surging in every state. Over the last two weeks, the average case count in the United States has increased by 80 percent to around 160,000 each day. The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 has doubled in a month. As of Tuesday, nearly 77,000 were hospitalized with the virus. The country is now averaging more than 1,155 deaths per day, which is the highest in months. On Wednesday, a grim milestone was reached – more than 250,000 people dead from COVID-19.

Many states have begun instituting additional restrictions to combat further spread, from closing restaurants to in-person dining to placing limits on gatherings. Some states that had avoided mask mandates now have them.

Although Maine is seeing more cases and hospitalizations than ever, the state COVID-19 infection and death rates remain among the lowest in the nation. Nevertheless, the surge has prompted Mills and state health officials to impose a statewide mask mandate in all public settings, to delay resumption of indoor bar service and to restrict the number of people allowed to gather indoors.

Mills has resisted ordering the type of statewide “lockdown” or stay-at-home order she imposed in the spring, despite much more serious case numbers. The governor said Wednesday that without the type of federal assistance for individuals and businesses that was available in the spring, a statewide lockdown would have an even more dramatic impact on the economy and people.

But she urged residents to rethink any traveling or large gatherings over the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday.

“Maine people need to ask themselves, ‘Do I have to take this trip?’ if the answer is honestly ‘No,’ don’t go,” she said.

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey contributed to this report.

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