A sign on the door of a Shaw’s supermarket in Portland on Monday informs customers that they are no longer to required to wear masks inside the store. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Maine recorded the lowest number of new COVID-19 cases since the fall on Tuesday, continuing a downward trend in infections as the state approaches a busy and unrestricted summer tourism season.

The 61 cases marked the second straight day in which new cases fell below 100 and only the fourth time this year that cases were in the double digits. Tuesday’s figure also represented the lowest single-day total since late-October, excluding major holidays when many testing locations were closed.

Businesses across the state, meanwhile, were returning to near normalcy this week with no state-mandated masking, capacity limits or physical distancing requirements effective Monday. In another sign of how the landscape is changing for businesses and groups, the Mills administration officially “retired” the roughly two dozen checklists that provided COVID-19 prevention guidance to everything from restaurants and charter boats to churches and fitness centers.

“In light of the increased role the U.S. CDC has assumed in issuing guidance, the state of Maine made the decision to retire its COVID-19 Prevention Checklists and to transition to U.S. CDC guidelines as appropriate,” said Kate Foye, spokeswoman for the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development.

“The state of Maine has created one General Guidance document that entities may use,” Foye continued. “This guidance, which was posted on Monday, includes recommendations rather than requirements. For more specific guidance, the state will link out to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.”

Maine’s seven-day average of new cases has fallen dramatically in recent weeks as the latest surge ebbs and vaccinations increase. Maine averaged 149 new cases daily for the seven-day period ending Tuesday, down from a rolling average of 240 a week earlier and a springtime peak of 479 cases daily for the week ending on April 18.

There were no new cases in York County and just one in Cumberland County on Tuesday – a welcome shift for Maine’s two most populous counties, which along with Androscoggin have been COVID-19 hotspots for much of the pandemic. Penobscot and Kennebec counties each had 13 new infections reported on Tuesday, with all other counties in the single digits.

“The rate of new cases per day has been coming down just over the recent week or so, and that’s a very good sign,” Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine CDC, said on WGAN radio’s “Mornings News” program. “That being said, there is still a fair number of folks in the hospital.”

There were 117 people hospitalized statewide with COVID-19 on Tuesday, down slightly from 120 a day earlier but still well above the 60 to 70 hospitalizations the state was averaging before the most recent surge. Hospitalization trends typically lag cases by one to two weeks.

The statewide decline comes at a time Maine has eliminated most COVID-19 restrictions – including masking and physical distancing requirements for fully vaccinated individuals – and is preparing for a busy summer tourism season starting this weekend. Shah said there is “a straight line” between vaccinations and the reduction in case numbers.

Gov. Janet Mills’ office highlighted on Tuesday that 70.5 percent of Maine residents age 12 or older had received at least one dose, according to the U.S. CDC website. President Biden had set a goal of 70 percent of Americans age 18 or older receiving at least one shot by July 4, but Maine and five other states – New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Hawaii – have surpassed the 70 percent mark for all eligible residents.

“We are getting shots into arms at a nation-leading pace, seeing our case counts trend downward, and getting back to normal,” Mills said in a statement. “Maine people deserve to be proud of the progress they’ve made, but let’s not stop here: if you haven’t had your shot yet, I encourage you to talk to your doctor about why it’s safe to roll up your sleeve to protect your health and that of your loved ones.”

Vaccination rates for Maine and other states can vary depending on the source because of differences in the way organizations incorporate inoculations with the single-shot vaccine produced by Johnson & Johnson. Whereas the Maine CDC only includes J&J shots in the “final dose” category, the U.S. CDC and other organizations, including Bloomberg, also include the single-dose vaccine in the “first dose” category, leading to higher figures.

As of Tuesday, 52.4 percent of the state’s 1.3 million residents had received a first dose of vaccine and 50.4 percent had received their final dose, according to the Maine CDC. Maine had the second-highest percentage of fully vaccinated individuals in the nation after Vermont and ranked fifth among the states in terms of the percent of the population that had received at least one dose of vaccine, according to tracking by Bloomberg.

However, the pace of vaccinations against COVID-19 has slowed considerably in Maine and across the country. And every state remains far short of the estimated 75 to 85 percent inoculation rate that experts have estimated would be necessary to control the virus population-wide through herd immunity.

In an effort to boost rates, many states are now offering incentives to people to get vaccinated, ranging from free tickets or gift cards in Maine to the chance to win $1 million in Ohio. On Tuesday, White House coronavirus adviser Andy Slavitt highlighted Ohio’s successful lottery program – which was credited with helping boost shots by 33 percent the week after it was announced – during a news conference about the Treasury Department’s new guidance on the use of American Rescue Plan stimulus funds for such initiatives.

“The bottom line is, with this guidance, we encourage states to use their creativity to draw attention to vaccines and to get their states, and the country, back to normal as quickly as possible,” Slavitt said during a briefing of the White House’s COVID-19 Response Team. “This includes lottery programs for vaccinated individuals, cash or in-kind transfers, or other monetary incentives for individuals to get vaccinated.”

As of Tuesday morning, 3,613 eligible people in Maine had registered for the “Shot to Get Outdoors” incentives program, with the most popular perks being the $20 L.L. Bean gift card (1,533 takers) and a free fishing license (897 takers), according to the Maine CDC. Other incentives in Maine’s program, which runs through May 31, include a free hunting license, a ticket to the Maine Wildlife Park in Gray, a day pass to state parks, and a ticket to either the Portland Sea Dogs or Oxford Plains Speedway.

Schools and childcare settings in Maine remain the notable exceptions when it comes to lifting COVID-related restrictions.

Masks are still required indoors in schools and daycare facilities, and the Maine Department of Education continues to use a color-coded system based on case trends to advise when schools can return to in-person instruction. All counties in Maine are currently “green,” meaning schools can consider classroom instruction.

The state continues to recommend a 3-foot buffer between individuals in schools that are participating in routine, pooled COVID-19 testing to detect infections but is still requiring a 6-foot separation between students while they are eating or drinking.

While masks are still recommended in indoor, public settings for unvaccinated individuals, it is up to businesses or institutions to decide whether to continue requiring face coverings and how to enforce it. On Monday, many major stores throughout the state stopped requiring patrons to wear masks indoors.

“This is based on trust,” Shah said on WGAN. “We trust that those who are unvaccinated will in fact wear a mask. Will they do so 100 percent of the time? No, we’re not naive. We recognize that there will be some folks who will blend in even though they haven’t been vaccinated. But when you set that against the other potential policy route, which is a complicated system to vet and verify every single person, well, I’d go with trust any day.”

Controversies remain around mask mandates, however.

Six Republican state lawmakers and one Libertarian were stripped of their committee assignments by House Speaker Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, on Monday after the group chose to violate the Legislature’s rules requiring masks inside the State House. The group had walked into the State House together on Monday and declined to put on masks when asked to do so by a member of the Capitol Police, saying they were following state and federal guidance on masks.

To date, the Maine CDC has tracked 67,132 confirmed or probable cases of COVID-19 since March 2020 as well as 824 deaths linked to the viral disease.

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