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Janet Mills Expands Face Mask Requirement As 183 More COVID-19 Cases Are Reported In Maine

Robert F. Bukaty
Associated Press
Voters brave cold temperatures and strong winds waiting to vote on Election Day Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020, in Portland, Maine.

Face coverings are now required in all indoor and outdoor public settings in Maine, regardless of how far apart people might be. That’s from a new executive order announced by Gov. Janet Mills on Thursday as Maine continues to set new daily records for cases of COVID-19.

The Maine CDC is reporting 183 new cases on Thursday.

Hospitalizations are also on the rise, with 38 people receiving inpatient care as compared to just seven two weeks ago. And Maine’s positivity rate has nearly tripled from two weeks ago, to 1.3 percent.

Many businesses hope the new, broader mask requirement will eliminate confusion — and the need for enforcement.

For some businesses, the order doesn’t change their policies or practices.

“Reny’s has been requiring masks in our stores since the beginning,” says Faustine Reny, of the department store chain of the same name.

Since July, large businesses have been required to enforce a face covering mandate in the state’s most populous cities and coastal counties. A month ago, that enforcement expanded statewide.

Reny says customers have generally been compliant. But she says this new executive order, which requires businesses of all sizes to enforce the mandate, will hopefully eliminate confusion.

“We have found that is what is the biggest part for our customers and our staff, is that some people can’t understand why one person is enforcing the policy and the other one’s not. So I think it will help our staff with being able to help our customers just understand this is just what you’re supposed to do, regardless of size or type of business. That’s what we’re hoping for,” she says.

The order requires operators of indoor public settings to post signs about the mask mandate and empowers them to deny entry to those who don’t comply. The order also gives a more broad definition of public settings and specifically names the types of venues where Maine has seen outbreaks, such as social clubs, ice rinks and fitness centers.

At the Midcoast Athletics Center in Warren, there’s currently an outbreak involving five kids on a basketball team. Owner Rachel Coor says those cases actually stem from a school soccer team, and says she’s been following guidelines. She’ll comply with the new order and doesn’t expect to lose any patrons over it.

“Even the people that said, ‘I would never make my kid play if they have to wear a mask,’ I think that sort of is just generally being accepted now, and people are willing to do whatever it is they need to do to be able to go out and continue to play sports,” she says.

Houses of worship are also included in the order. There have been several outbreaks among Pentecostal and Baptist churches in Maine, and some have infamously flouted safety protocols. The executive minister of American Baptist Churches of Maine, Al Fletcher, says his members are independent and autonomous, but have already embraced COVID-19 safety measures such as wearing masks.

“Each church has got to live with its own conscience and it’s got to do its own work. I just think we’re living in a day and age where it makes sense to take the precautions that are necessary and to work as cooperatively with our state as we can,” he says.

The Mills Administration is hoping that people will voluntarily comply with the executive order. If not, the state can take action against a facility’s operating license. Violation of an executive order can also translate into a $1,000 fine and a jail sentence of up to six months. Patrons who are warned about the face covering requirement but insist on entering an establishment anyway can be charged with trespassing.

Greg Dugal of HospitalityMaine says enforcement has been one of the primary challenges for restaurants, where customers are already required to wear masks except when seated at a table. He says that requirement will continue under the new order.

“That’s the role we’ve been out into. And trust me - I’ve had lots of calls from restaurant owners trying to rationalize how they can handle the situation, because it’s difficult,” he says.

Dugal says now that people are required to have a mask on everywhere that they go, they’ll be less inclined to show up at restaurants and not wear one.

The order, which also requires face coverings regardless of distancing in outdoor spaces such as playgrounds, parking lots and sidewalks, is similar to one issued this week by Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker. In a written statement, Mills says the coronavirus is spreading across the state, and wearing a face covering will save lives.

Cumulatively, 7,260 Mainers have been diagnosed with COVID-19. Of those, 5,751 people have recovered, leaving 1,359 cases active.

The number of people who have died, 150, is unchanged from Wednesday.

An early version of this story was originally published at 8:35 a.m. Thursday, Nov. 5.