All counties in Maine are now considered medium risk for COVID-19 according to updated data released Thursday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, meaning that masking indoors is no longer recommended in the state.

The CDC is, however, still recommending that people who are immunocompromised or at high risk for severe illness wear a mask indoors.

The change in federal guidelines came one day after the administration of Maine Gov. Janet Mills dropped its recommendation that masks be worn inside schools and child care centers. Maine’s official recommendation is that mask wearing should become optional starting Wednesday. It will be left up to individual school districts to decide whether to rescind mask mandates, and many already are doing so or preparing to do so based on a steady drop in cases.

Portland’s school district bucked this trend Thursday, saying it plans to keep its mandatory indoor masking policy in place.

The district will continue requiring masks at least until warmer weather allows students, faculty and staff to spend more time outdoors and until the district has a period of stable low cases, Tess Nacelewicz, communication coordinator for Portland Public Schools, told the Press Herald Thursday afternoon.

The state’s updated recommendation for schools did not specifically recommend that masks should be optional in workplaces or other public spaces.


But that change, combined with the new federal guidelines, could lead to new workplace and business policies on masking in the coming days and weeks. Masks are still recommended in health care facilities, according to the state.

The federal CDC on Thursday updated its data map that allows people to view COVID-19 risk levels in their communities. The new feature can be used as a tool to help communities decide what prevention steps to take based on the latest data, the CDC said.

Those risk levels – low, medium or high – are determined by looking at hospital beds being used, hospital admissions and the total number of new COVID-19 cases in an area.

As of Thursday, more than 90 percent of the U.S. population was in a location with low or medium COVID-19 risk level, according to the federal CDC.

The change in designation to medium risk for all of Maine that was announced Thursday represents a dramatic shift from last Friday when the federal agency placed 13 out of 16 counties in the high risk category.

It is not clear why the updated CDC map posted Thursday for Maine changed. It also wasn’t clear if state officials contacted the U.S. CDC to provide corrected case counts, which could have contributed to the change.


Messages left Thursday night with the Maine CDC and the governor’s office seeking more information about the U.S. CDC’s new designations for Maine’s counties were not returned.

Harding Smith, the chef/owner of three Portland restaurants welcomed the new guidance from the federal CDC.

“That is fantastic news,” Smith said. “Hopefully, this will ease things up for us.”

Smith said that operating restaurants for the past two years while a global pandemic raged has been challenging, adding, “this (lifting the mask recommendation) is a huge step forward.” He said the new federal guidance should make indoor dining a more “relaxed, welcoming and convivial” experience.


In a related development, members of Maine’s Legislative Council voted Thursday to make face masks optional in the State House, a response to declining hospitalization rates and updated guidance from the Maine CDC. The new mask policy takes effect Monday.


“From the beginning, our goal as Presiding Officers has been for the operations of the Maine Legislature to return to some semblance of normalcy while protecting the health and safety of staff, the general public and our colleagues,” legislative leaders said in a statement. “The unanimous vote today represents a big step in the right direction. After a few difficult months, all the available data suggests that the COVID-19 surge in Maine has finally subsided.”

Legislative leaders emphasized that wearing a mask inside the State House remains an option for anyone who choses to do so.

While federal guidelines updated last week recommended that masks be worn indoors in most parts of Maine, a Press Herald analysis showed that Maine’s artificially high case counts – resulting from tests that overwhelmed the state in January – were influencing the results of a calculation the federal agency is using to make masking recommendations. Without a backlog of unprocessed positive tests creating artificially high case counts, most of Maine would have fallen under federal risk categories that would recommend masks become optional indoors.

The analysis of unprocessed positive tests from Feb. 10-24, when compared with new hospital admissions and hospital capacity, showed that likely only two counties, Aroostook and Knox, would still have been in the “high” risk category with masks recommended indoors. All other Maine counties would be in “moderate” or “low” with masking optional, according to the Press Herald analysis.

Related Headlines

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.