Passengers leave the Peaks Island ferry in Portland on Thursday. The federal and state Centers for Disease Control both announced new guidance relaxing mask requirements. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

In another major step toward pre-pandemic life, Maine will eliminate most distancing requirements and end restrictions on the size of indoor and outdoor gatherings later this month.

The Mills administration is speeding up the state’s reopening timeline ahead of the busy summer tourism season, allowing performing arts venues and movie theaters, sporting events, restaurants with outdoor seating and other businesses to return to full capacity starting May 24. While several significant restrictions will remain – including an indoor mask mandate that is at odds with federal guidance, for now, and distancing requirements for indoor dining – the changes are another significant step toward normalcy 14 months after COVID-19 shut down much of the country.

“These changes are aligned with the latest science and they make sense for Maine at this stage, I think, given the percentage of our population that has been vaccinated,” Gov. Janet Mills said during a virtual news conference. “I want to be clear: We are still living through a pandemic and these changes don’t come without some risk, especially for those who remain unvaccinated. Please, I beg you … please protect yourselves, your families and your communities by getting vaccinated.”

However, Mills and her team were not yet prepared to lift the statewide mask mandate for indoor public spaces despite new guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Those recommendations, which were released while Mills was holding her news conference, say fully vaccinated people can stop wearing masks inside in most places.

Mills and Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine CDC, said they would not speculate on potential changes to the mask requirements before reviewing the federal guidance.

“The guidance just went up online in the last few minutes and we haven’t studied it in detail,” Mills said. “We are sticking with what we are saying today because it’s what we think is best for Maine’s economic and Maine’s public health needs right now.”

Maine already has loosened its mask mandate for outdoors and has been welcoming visitors from any state without proof of a negative COVID-19 test since May 1.

The state had been slated to remove the capacity limits on outdoor venues on May 24, but prior to Thursday’s announcement still would have required physical distancing even in those outdoor settings. Capacity is currently capped at 50 percent for indoor public settings and will go to 100 percent on May 24, rather than moving to 75 percent capacity on that day under the timeline announced in March.

Mills is keeping the physical distancing requirements for bars, restaurants and other indoor, public settings where most people just remove masks in order to eat or drink. That means many restaurants, bars, tasting rooms and other food/drink establishments will still essentially have indoor capacity limits.

“From an economic perspective, this continues to be the steps forward that we are taking to continue to create capacity for businesses while making sure we are trying to protect public,” said Heather Johnson, commissioner of the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development.

‘A STEP IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION’

Reaction to the governor’s announcement was mixed among a sampling of Portland restaurateurs reached Thursday afternoon.

“We’re happy. And it’s consistent with (Mills’) incremental approach,” said Chris O’Neil, co-owner of Boone’s Fish House on Commercial Street, which has plenty of outdoor seating. “And it’s just in time for when we really need it,” he added, referring to the summer tourist season.

At the same time, O’Neil said he was “hesitant to cram people back together as if they were in a beehive” because patrons appreciate the space.

“To honor the comfort level of the customers, I don’t see us hurtling headlong back to 100 percent capacity (outside) with decreased spacing,” O’Neil said. “We will most likely land on a hybrid version, somewhere in between where we are now and full capacity.”

Pliny Reynolds, owner of Terlingua on Washington Avenue, which is not yet open for indoor dining, echoed those sentiments. Until community spread of COVID-19 decreases, and his staff is fully vaccinated, Reynolds does not expect to add more tables outside or to open up for indoor dining.

“I’m not planning on jamming my backyard full of people any time soon,” he said, adding several times that he felt very lucky compared to other restaurants because he has space for outdoor eating. “I’m not particularly comfortable, and I know my customers aren’t comfortable being in close proximity at this point.”

Steve DiMillo, who manages his family’s Old Port restaurant, called the changes, “a step in the right direction.” At DiMillo’s on the Water, the changes mean the restaurant could potentially double its outdoor capacity from 100 to 200 on its two decks.

But DiMillo echoed the concerns of others, adding that “we don’t have the staffing for it.”

Other business owners also welcomed the news ahead of what is expected to be a busy summer tourism season.

Khaled Habash said he hired a doorman at The Blue Lobster gift store on Commercial Street last year to make sure no more than five customers were inside  at any time and his staff was drained policing the state’s rules. Now he expects to be able to open more hours and feel comfortable letting more customers into the store.

“It will be a little more liberating, mentally, for everyone,” Habash said. Keeping on top of occupancy limits and other restrictions “is exhausting, and it takes away from energy you are meant to be putting into the business.”

Ramsey Lafayette, regional manager for Lafayette Hotels, which owns more than two dozen hotels and resorts in Maine and New Hampshire, also was pleased to hear the news.

“It is nice to see there is some level of commitment to moving things forward,” Lafayette said. “I think it makes sense, the restrictions are almost out of date. We are very excited about any and all lifting of restrictions, it will certainly make things easier and people are ready for it.”

The Mills administration planned to update its business guidance and “checklists” in the coming days. Those updates will provide additional clarity to businesses that were still trying to figure out how Thursday’s changes would affect them.

At Nickelodeon Cinemas in Portland, general manager David Scott called the news “exciting,” but he wasn’t sure if it meant his theater could run at full capacity since theatergoers eat popcorn and drink soda. His theater has been closed since last fall because he couldn’t attract enough customers while Hollywood was not releasing new films.

Before Thursday’s announcement, Scott already had been planning to reopen May 27. Currently the capacity for indoor gathering is 50 percent, which is what Scott had been planning on.

“I’m still digesting this, I really don’t know what it means for us,” he said.

CASES FALLING BUT STILL ELEVATED

Mills made the announcement one day after Maine surpassed another symbolic milestone with more than 70 percent of residents age 18 or older having received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine. President Biden has set a goal of getting at least one shot into the arms of 70 percent of the adult population nationwide by July 4.

“We are reaching this goal 53 days early,” Mills said.

That percentage takes into account both the number of people 18 and older who have received at least one dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, and those who have received the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

Of the five other states that have reached that threshold, four are in New England. The other is Hawaii.

Meanwhile, state health officials reported 295 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, the sixth time in the last seven days that daily cases were below 300. No additional deaths were reported.

The seven-day daily case average stands at 267, a slight decrease from 297 two weeks ago but down considerably from the spring peak average of 475 cases on April 18. Since the pandemic began, there have been 65,043 confirmed or probable cases of COVID-19 and 798 deaths, according to data tracked by the Maine CDC.

Cases have been falling sharply across the country as well. According to the U.S. CDC, the seven-day daily average is just under 37,000, down from roughly 70,000 cases per day a month ago. It’s the lowest rate since last September. The average number of daily COVID-19 deaths has fallen to 586, which is the lowest since the early days of the pandemic.

Despite the drop in new cases, hospitalizations remain high in Maine. As of Thursday, there were 118 individuals in the hospital with COVID-19, including 48 in critical care and 27 on ventilators. It’s the first time daily hospitalizations have been as low as 118 in two weeks, the highest sustained levels since early February.

Meanwhile, vaccinations have continued to slow down this week, even as the state has opened eligibility to children 12 to 15 following federal emergency use authorization for that age group. As of Thursday, Maine has administered 661,051 first doses, representing 49.2 percent of the state’s population, and 612,791 final doses, accounting for 45.6 percent of residents, although the average number of daily shots has been cut in half since this time last month.

Among those 60 or older, nearly 81 percent are fully vaccinated, but among those between 16 and 39, who have been eligible for more than a month, the percentage that has gotten a first dose is just 42 percent. There continue to be wide variances in vaccination rates by county, ranging from a high of 54 percent overall in Cumberland County to a low of 37 percent in Somerset County.

Staff Writers Peggy Grodinsky and Peter McGuire contributed to this report.

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