The South Portland High School junior varsity softball team huddles before a game against Falmouth on Thursday in South Portland. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

On a sun-splashed softball diamond, the South Portland High junior varsity softball team took the field for infield warmups before a game against Falmouth last week. The Red Riots wore bright red-and-white game uniforms, donned their gloves, and got in the ready position. Coach Christina Aceto hit grounders and fly balls, most fielded cleanly or caught out of the air.

While it was a typical spring sports scene, what was striking was what wasn’t needed anymore.

Masks. Or limited players in the dugout. Or rules on where spectators could sit, or how many could be in the stands. All the rules that were in place at the beginning of the season that have since been rescinded as the pandemic eases.

The softball game was but one example of how rapidly COVID-19 pandemic restrictions that have governed our lives for 15 months are evaporating.

Activities are returning to near-normal, with Maine people now able to walk into many businesses without masks, eat indoors at restaurants, even gather in crowds. People can go for daily walks around neighborhoods – sans mask – without risking disapproving looks from passers-by.

Public health experts say the United States and Maine are lifting restrictions largely because the vaccines are working, and enough people are getting vaccinated or have natural immunity to give the virus less opportunities to spread. Maine has among the best vaccination rates in the nation.

“The trends are all pointing in the right direction,” said Joshua Michaud, associate director of global health policy for the Kaiser Family Foundation, a Washington-based health policy think tank. “This is due to the amazing efficacy of the vaccines. The virus is having a harder and harder time finding people who are vulnerable. I expect this summer to look really good in most places (in the United States).”

While Maine is doing well in vaccinations, some other states, especially in the Deep South, have a much longer road ahead to immunize their populations. Even so, nationally, the seven-day average of daily new cases, about 23,000, has fallen 50 percent since the beginning of May, similar to levels a year ago. The seasonality of the novel coronavirus may also play a role, but to what extent the spring weather is a factor is difficult to say with vaccines driving down cases.

Across the youth football and soccer fields at the Wainwright Sports Complex in South Portland, the Red Riots high school baseball team held its senior day to honor its graduating players, who last played baseball for the school team when they were sophomores. The spring sports season in 2020 was canceled because of the pandemic. But on Thursday, music blared, the uniform numbers of the seniors were spray-painted on the grass outside the first base line, and balloons congratulating the soon-to-be graduates were fastened to the outfield fences.

Catchers gave signs to pitchers. Signs of normal times.

“Now we can go places without worrying about wearing masks and who you’re around,” South Portland freshman softball player Andrea DiMauro said in an interview before the game.

‘TURNING BACK TO NORMAL’

Dr. Meghan May, a virologist at the University of New England, said her fully vaccinated family is returning to pre-pandemic activities, such as going to Boston Celtics games and taking a trip to Florida this summer.

“We are taking that Pfizer immunity out for a spin,” she said.

In Maine, cases declined 38 percent over a seven-day period through May 28, reaching 120 cases on average per day, the lowest since early last November, and there are signs that vaccinations have had a noticeable impact. The 14-day average in Maine as of Friday was 156.9 cases.

Cumberland County, the state’s most populous and the county with the highest vaccination rates, experienced a 64 percent decline in cases over the seven-day period that ended May 28. And even though the rollout of vaccinations has declined as those most eager to get their shots have already done so, it continues at a slow and steady pace.

At the South Portland baseball field, senior Noah Dreifus, a catcher, said when players were allowed to ditch their masks, which was a few weeks into the spring season, it had a psychological impact.

“When the masks came off and we could see everyone’s faces, it was like I hadn’t seen their faces in years,” Dreifus said. “It lifted everyone’s spirits. Things are turning back to normal.”

South Portland High School freshman Andrea DiMauro, 15, pitches Thursday during a game against Falmouth in South Portland. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

That’s in contrast to high school sports during the height of the pandemic – in the winter season – when participants dealt with frequent quarantines and cumbersome protocols.

Ashley Thurston, a junior centerfielder on the softball team, said this winter the volleyball team had to wash down dozens of volleyballs after every practice. Ella Nickerson, a freshman shortstop, said indoor track held virtual practices for most of the season and track meets were conducted as intramural games. When they did conduct in-person track practices, all equipment had to be sanitized before every jump, said Nickerson, a sprinter and jumper.

“It was really hard to stay motivated,” Nickerson said.

Sports isn’t the only activity that’s returning to near-normal. Children can go to summer camp without masks, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced on Friday. Concerts are returning as well, especially later in the summer, with shows booked for Thompson’s Point in Portland and Maine Savings Pavilion at Rock Row in Westbrook, among other venues.

Restaurants are permitting indoor dining, bars have reopened for indoor service and libraries, museums and government buildings are opening back up to the public.

Visitor restrictions also have been lifted for tourists pouring into Maine from out-of-state for what is expected to be a busy summer tourist season.

VACCINE HESITANCY A CONCERN

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said a big reason why restrictions can be eased is that vaccinations are tamping down cases, and Maine has had relatively high vaccine uptake. Through Friday, 53 percent of Maine’s 1.3 million population had received at least the first dose of a vaccine.

“We are one of the most vaccinated states in one of the most vaccinated countries in the world,” Shah said in an interview with the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram. “So Maine is one of the most vaccinated places on the entire planet.”

With cases declining, and hospitalizations and deaths expected to follow suit in the coming weeks, Shah said he’s “optimistic the trajectory we are on will continue.”

While it’s unknown what level of vaccination is needed to reach herd immunity – when enough people are immunized to make cases go down to zero or near-zero with little chance of outbreaks – Shah said Maine may already be close to vaccination levels that will successfully drive down cases. Herd immunity projections have shifted, but could be anywhere from 70 to 85 percent of the total population.

When factoring in the number of people who have gotten their shots with people who have natural immunity from contracting COVID-19,  60 percent of Maine’s population could already be immunized on the low end to perhaps 70 percent or higher. It’s unclear how many people got sick with COVID-19 who are not counted in the official statistics. For instance, some people, especially younger age groups, may have been asymptomatic, or others had mild cases and were never tested for the disease.

But it’s expected that there are two or three times or more uncounted cases in addition to official cases, Shah said.

“There doesn’t need to be an obsession with getting to a certain number of people vaccinated because in practical terms not that much changes after you reach certain thresholds,” he said. “The bottom line is every person we vaccinate is a new potential chain of transmission we’ve cut off.”

A Kaiser Family Foundation survey released on Friday showed that 13 percent of people will refuse the vaccine under all circumstances. If almost everyone else can be immunized, Michaud said that will go a long way toward ending the pandemic. Maine and other New England and northeast states are leading the way with high vaccination rates, but many southern states – where vaccine hesitancy or denial is more prevalent – still lag behind.

Michaud said while the trend lines are positive, one threat to the pandemic lingering is if going into the fall there are still large numbers of unvaccinated people. Scientists are working on approving a vaccine for those 11 and younger, but it is not expected to be ready before school begins in the fall.

“The bulk of the evidence points towards children 11 and under being less likely to transmit the virus than adults,” Michaud said. “How much less likely is up for debate. The bottom line is children can and still do get infected and it still creates the possibility for transmission to occur. If it can occur in schools, it can occur in households. That is a concern.”

May, the UNE virologist, said a vaccine for ages 11 and younger will be a significant factor toward ending the pandemic.

“The big question is how many parents are going to vaccinate their 11 and under kids,” she said. “Can we make up the difference among unvaccinated hesitant adults by reducing the virus’s circulation in the pediatric population?”

And while variants have gotten a lot of media attention – because some of the variants are more transmissible and potentially more dangerous – Michaud said the good news is the vaccines are effective against the variants. May said even if a variant emerges that can evade the existing vaccines, booster shots can be developed that should work well against variants.

Back at the softball field in South Portland, DiMauro stepped up to the plate in the bottom of the first inning with two runners on.

She smashed a line drive into centerfield – one might say her hit “flattened the curve” – for a double.

Both runners crossed home plate and, standing much closer than 6 feet apart, high-fived their teammates.


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