A pedestrian walks past a store advertising masks in Portland’s Old Port on Friday. Gov. Mills signed an executive order requiring businesses and “public spaces” of any size and for any number of people to mandate mask wearing. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Gov. Janet Mills announced Friday that all stores and other “public spaces” in Maine are now required to deny entry to patrons not wearing masks or face coverings, as the state continues to see record numbers of COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations.

With her latest executive order, Mills said her hard line on masks is an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus before Maine is forced to follow the lead of other, harder-hit states that have reimposed business closures or lockdowns. Mills said the onus is now on managers and owners of businesses to enforce the requirement, but added that if they encounter trouble police statewide “stand ready to assist.”

“Everybody knows about the mask mandate, especially now that for the past month facilities have had to post the requirement publicly,” Mills said. “Anyone who still insists on entering a store or other facility without wearing a mask, or insists on taking it off after they get inside, they can be and should be removed and charged with criminal trespass.”

Those with legitimate medical exemptions to the mask mandate will be provided with accommodations, such as curbside delivery of goods, but will not be allowed in stores or other public settings under the latest executive order.

Mills made the announcement during a week in which Maine exceeded 400 new daily COVID-19 cases three times – including a record 427 cases on Monday – and reported 23 deaths over four days. The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported 345 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday as well as four additional deaths, raising the total deaths to 250.

The surge has prompted the Maine CDC to scale back case investigation and contact tracing as well as to stop processing some test results from hospitals in order to prioritize resources.

The governor said the state is “running out of available public health tools to reduce the spread of COVID-19” short of closing schools or businesses. Speaking from her State House office after emerging from COVID-19 quarantine herself, Mills repeated that she is proof that masks work because she did not contract the virus after being exposed to a member of her security team who tested positive.

“If today’s targeted steps don’t work, more severe restrictions might be necessary, including reducing gathering limits as other states have done, or even business closures as some have done. Those options are a last resort, and they are a last resort because they have such a devastating effect on people, their income and making them feel isolated.”

The 345 additional infections is slightly higher than the seven-day average of 337 daily cases, but significantly above the 14-day average of 282, reflecting the pace at which the virus is spreading in Maine.

The deaths reported Friday were a man in his 80s from Hancock County, a woman in her 80s from Hancock County, a woman in her 80s from Oxford County and a woman in her 70s from Penobscot County. However, the state continues to have among the nation’s lowest infection and death rates from COVID-19.

Maine is in the midst of the most serious surge in infections, hospitalizations and deaths since the pandemic began, as are many states across the nation. There were 182 people in the hospital as of Friday morning – 10 more than the previous day and more than 10 times the number of hospitalizations reported on Nov. 1 – while 50 of those 182 were being treated in intensive care units with 16 on ventilators.

There were 4,512 active cases of the virus in Maine as of Friday – an increase of 291 from Thursday – after accounting for the 250 deaths and the 10,444 individuals who have recovered from the disease. By comparison, there were 2,049 active cases in Maine four weeks ago on Nov.  13.

MASK ENFORCEMENT

Mask usage has become a political issue nationwide, spurred on by claims that mask mandates infringe upon constitutional rights and President Trump’s resistance to wearing one despite research showing their usefulness in reducing spread of the virus.

Republican leaders in the Maine Legislature said Mills’ latest order goes too far and could potentially put employees or owners of small stores at risk if they are compelled to confront someone who isn’t wearing a mask.

“I really hope the governor knows what she is doing,” Senate Republican Leader Jeff Timberlake, R-Androscoggin, said in a joint statement with House Republican Leader Kathleen Dillingham, R-Oxford. “I am concerned how people react, at least in rural Maine about this.”

Dillingham echoed Timberlake’s concerns.

“There is great concern with having small-business workers, in some cases teenagers, charged with ensuring compliance with executive orders,” Dillingham said. “Placing such a burden on employees who are not trained in this area and forcing them into situations of conflict can compromise an individuals’ mental health and safety.”

The news release distributed by Mills’ office about the administration’s tougher mask mandate included statements of support from the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, the Retail Association of Maine, the Maine Municipal Association, the Maine Chiefs of Police, Attorney General Aaron Frey and Disability Rights Maine.

A woman checks her phone while walking on Fore Street last month. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

“People with disabilities, myself included, reject recent attempts to misappropriate our identities and misuse our vitally important and hard-fought civil rights protections, as a form of misguided civil disobedience,” said Kim Moody, executive director of Disability Rights Maine. “The vast majority of Maine people with disabilities wear face coverings when in the community because it is safer, and it is smart. And we want others to do the same, because many of us have compromised immune systems or are otherwise in high-risk categories.”

Asked how shoppers or other members of the public should respond to the maskless individuals, Mills said she would leave a store if managers or owners were not enforcing the public health measure. But she also recommended speaking to the managers directly or, if necessary, calling local law enforcement.

Violating the executive orders during COVID-19 is a Class E crime, punishable by up to 180 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.

“They all took an oath when they took office and when they put on that badge as well … and they understand that they are required to enforce the law,” Mills said.

Sagadahoc County Sheriff Joel Merry said his office received complaints about mask compliance after Mills strengthened the state’s mandate last month.

“It’s been a mixed bag,” he said of those calls. “Most businesses when confronted assure us they have a store policy, but that they don’t want to throw people out. I get that. Businesses don’t want to lose business, especially right now.”

As for being called upon to enforce the mandate more regularly following Mills’ announcement Friday, Merry said he sent a memo out to deputies that afternoon about the topic, letting them know what’s expected.

“I fully anticipate we’ll get some calls,” he said. “Our goal is still going to be to inform. We don’t want to escalate the situation. Sometimes when police show up, that’s enough for behavior to change.”

Auburn Police Chief Jason Moen said calls for assistance from stores have been “few and far in between.” He didn’t anticipate an increase with the new order.

“We will continue to assist businesses who may have someone who refuses to leave the premises when asked to wear a mask,” he said. “Most people are very cooperative.”

Lewiston Police Chief Brian O’Malley said charging someone who defies the mask order would be a last resort.

“A store can now refuse service to an individual not wearing a mask and if the police department is contacted we would reiterate that as well,” he said. “If the individual continues to defy the mask requirement they could be escorted from the store. Any type of criminal charge such as criminal trespass would be a last resort and I am confident that our community will adhere to voluntary compliance of this new executive order.”

VACCINES AND FEDERAL RELIEF

The surge of cases in Maine and across the country – with more than 15.6 million cases 292,000 deaths nationwide, according to Johns Hopkins University – comes at a time when hopes have been buoyed about several vaccines, including a version from Pfizer-BioNTech that was authorized by the Food and Drug Administration on Friday night. Experts hope another vaccine by Moderna is not far behind in the approval process.

On Friday, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services requested an additional 37,850 first doses of Pfizer and Moderna vaccines from the federal government on top of the 12,675 already requested. Those initial vaccinations – the first of two required shots – could be administered to front-line health care workers and residents of skilled nursing and long-term care facilities as soon as next week.

“We have a range of when it might happen and, of course, we are ready to take the baton,” Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah said on Friday. “We have been running for a while now and we are ready to have the baton passed to us so we can accelerate and sprint even further.”

But political disagreements continue to hamstring efforts in Congress to pass another coronavirus relief package.

With funds from the last relief package slated to expire at month’s end, Mills announced Friday that the administration had committed all $1.25 billion Maine had received as part of the federal CARES Act. The final $6.8 million from the Coronavirus Relief Fund will be allocated to the Maine CDC’s partnership with Westbrook-based IDEXX Laboratories to process COVID-19 test results.

“Maine’s response to COVID-19, including our game-changing partnership with IDEXX and our small business recovery, education and housing grants, would not have been possible without federal relief,” Mills said in a statement. “With all of our CRF funding committed and scheduled to sunset at the end of this month, and with the virus spreading dangerously in Maine and across the country, I urge Congress to provide continued pandemic relief for Maine people and to offer flexibility for any existing funds. I am grateful to Maine’s congressional delegation for their advocacy and help, and will continue to work closely with them.”

COVID IN SCHOOLS

The Maine Department of Education released updated color-coded advisories for school reopenings on Friday. Androscoggin, Oxford and York counties remain yellow, meaning hybrid learning is recommended, and sports and other extracurricular activities are restricted. Somerset County, however, was upgraded from yellow to green since last week because the positivity rate in Somerset had fallen below the statewide average.

All other counties also were green, meaning they were approved for in-person instruction, although Cumberland and Kennebec counties were being closely monitored because of increasing case and positivity rates.

As of Thursday, the education department was aware of 440 COVID-19 cases among students or staff at Maine schools during the past 30 days, accounting for a small percentage of the more than 6,500 new cases of the virus reported statewide during that time. Shah, as well as education officials, have said that in the vast majority of cases, students or staff appear to have contracted the virus in the community rather than at school.

Even so, Shah announced newly opened outbreak investigations at roughly a half-dozen schools around the state on Friday.

School-related cases are included among the high-priority cases that the Maine CDC will continue to investigate as it scales back investigations and contact tracing in order to target resources to vulnerable individuals or those with higher risk of spreading the virus. The Maine CDC also will continue to investigate/contact trace cases among individuals over age 65 or under age 18 as well as among health care workers, first responders, and residents of nursing homes, group homes and other congregate-care settings.

Staff Writer Eric Russell and Sun Journal Staff Writer Kathryn Skelton contributed to this report.

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