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Mills Moves Maine Toward 'Stage 4' Of Reopening, Relaxing Capacity Limits, Expanding Mask Mandate

Robert F. Bukaty
Associated Press
A visitor at Fort Williams Park wears a mask to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus while walking on near Portland Head Light, Monday, Oct. 5, 2020, in Cape Elizabeth, Maine.

Gov. Janet Mills announced Tuesday that Maine will move to Stage 4 of the reopening plan for the economy beginning next Tuesday, Oct. 13.

Mills’ executive order lifts restrictions on businesses such as restaurants and bars, but also expands the state’s face covering requirement.

In one week, restaurants, movie theaters, religious gatherings — any business or organization that offers seated activities — will be allowed to operate at 50 percent capacity indoors. The maximum for these businesses is capped at 100 people, and safety protocols still have to be followed, such as keeping six feet apart from others.

Also under Stage 4, bars and tasting rooms will be permitted to offer indoor service starting Nov. 2.

In a news briefing on Tuesday, Mills said that since the early days of the pandemic, she has tried to balance public health with economic health. And this move to Stage 4 is in line with that goal.

“As the winter approaches, we have to continue this important balancing act. And we need now to ensure the businesses that were able to operate outside safely during the summer months are able to continue operating as the weather gets colder,” she said.

“Every silver lining has its cloud,” says Gregory Dugal of Hospitality Maine.

Dugal says allowing 50 percent capacity indoors will benefit some restaurants. But he says the overall cap of 100 people will hurt larger restaurants that have been able to serve more than that number through the use of separate rooms. Still, he says, the change will make a difference “for more than not.”

It also makes a difference for breweries eager to open tasting rooms for indoor service, says Sean Sullivan, the executive director of the Maine Brewers’ Guild. And he says customers should feel comfortable stepping inside.

“While our brewery owners are probably as nervous as every other business owner, it’s true that when you brew with beer, you have to sanitize just about everything that comes into contact with the beer as you brew it,” he says. “So if you’re a professional brewer, cleaning and sanitizing is like 99% of the job.”

Bars and tasting rooms are the last sector of Maine’s economy to be allowed to open for indoor service. Bars have been tied to outbreaks in other states and are considered among the riskier settings for transmission of the coronavirus. But Maine’s Commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services, Jeanne Lambrew, says the state has set strict safety rules, which include no live singing, woodwind instruments or open dance floors.

“We welcome the opportunity to give them a chance to reopen. But should we find that there are problems with compliance that if we can’t see the same type of precautions working well in these facilities, we’ll take action,” she says.

The Mills administration has already taken action against businesses that don’t comply. To date, the state has issued more than two dozen imminent health hazard warnings, and one business has racked up nearly $20,000 in fines.

Included in safety protocols is the expansion of a previous executive order that requires certain businesses to enforce the state’s face covering mandate. Before, the order only applied to coastal counties and the most populous cities. But next week it applies statewide.

In making her announcement, Mills pointed to Maine’s success so far maintaining a low transmission rate of the coronavirus, with one of the lowest numbers of positive cases, deaths and hospitalizations in the U.S. But she urged Mainers not to let their guard down.

“We have to remember this virus is still very much among us. And wearing a face covering, staying six feet apart, avoiding large gatherings, washing our hands often, all of those things are key to keeping Maine open,” she says.

The director of the Maine CDC, Dr. Nirav Shah, said that to stay in Stage 4, Maine must maintain the gains its made so far, and his agency will be monitoring key public health metrics.

The announcement comes as the Maine CDC reports 20 additional cases of COVID-19 and no new deaths, holding that number at 142.

The number of active cases in the state is 584.