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Mills Announces New COVID-19 Guidelines For Tourist Season, And Quadrupling Of Testing Capacity

Nick Woodward
Maine Public
Gov. Janet Mills at a media briefing in Augusta March 27, 2020.

Gov. Janet Mills on Monday unveiled an alternative to her 14-day quarantine requirement for out-of-state visitors. The change comes as the state also announced that it will soon quadruple its testing capacity for the novel coronavirus.

For weeks, Mills has been dogged by criticism over her 14-day quarantine for out-of-state visitors on the cusp of the critical summer tourist season that so many businesses rely on. Now, there’s a different option for visitors: they can show proof of a negative test for COVID-19.

“A negative test indicates that, even when coming from areas of higher prevalence than Maine, such people are unlikely to have COVID-19 and spread it to Maine residents and other visitors and staff of these businesses,” she says.

Adult visitors will be asked by lodging operators to sign a certificate of compliance that they’ve either received a negative test result within 72 hours prior to their arrival or have completed a 14-day quarantine. But there are exceptions to the new plan: Mills says visitors from Vermont and New Hampshire need not comply.

“Frankly, when adjusted for population, the prevalence of active cases for COVID-19 is pretty similar to Maine and they’re going down,” she says.

Effective immediately, visitors from Vermont and New Hampshire can come for day visits. Starting Friday, they can stay overnight, no quarantine or test required.

These changes are part of Mills’ new tourism plan, dubbed “Keep Maine Healthy,” which has two other components. One is establishing symptom checks in high-traffic tourist destinations. The state is enlisting health students in the community college system to staff sites such as visitors centers and beach parking lots to ask visitors about symptoms and offer advice.

The other component is encouraging municipalities to develop and implement their own plans to protect against COVID-19. The state will dedicate up to $13 million in federal dollars to reimburse these local efforts.

Maine Department of Economic and Community Development Commissioner Heather Johnson says this multilayered approach comes after weeks of work and consultation with the state’s hospitality sector.

“It is a little different than what other states are doing. We think it’s best practice for the type of situation that we have here to keep people safe and to allow for as broad an economic opening as possible,” she says.

Giving visitors the choice of doing a quarantine or getting a test is an improvement, says Travis Ferland, the owner of the Rangeley Inn.

“The more options we have for people, definitely the better. I think it’s still going to be restrictive for us,” he says.

Ferland says enforcing the state’s rules also puts lodging operators in a difficult position. Mills says lodging operators may ask guests for proof of their negative test when they sign a compliance certificate, but it’s not a requirement. When asked about enforcement, she said visitors could be held accountable.

“We expect that this certificate will be part of the checklist for a lodging facilities, and as such, violating this checklist would be a violation of the executive order, so it would be enforceable ultimately by criminal penalty,” she said.

Visitors are encouraged to get tested before they enter the state, but Mainers themselves will soon have expanded access to testing. The Mills administration also announced Monday the current testing capacity of about 7,000 tests per week is poised to quadruple to an additional 25,000. That’s due to a deepening partnership with Westbrook-based Idexx Laboratories, from which the state will purchase 350,000 more test kits and establish a new mobile testing lab in Augusta.

The state will now allow those at high risk for COVID-19 to get a test without a doctor’s order. It’s also working to create 20 “Swab and Send” sites that, combined with 40 existing test sites, will put testing within a half-hour drive for most Mainers.

Johnson says that Maine likely won’t hit peak tourism numbers this year, but the developments announced Monday should provide a jolt to the summer season.

“And we think tourists are making decisions based on safe destinations and high-quality destinations, and with this, we will have both,” she says.

The expanded testing capacity is expected to come online sometime in July.

The announcements come as Maine continues to see new cases of COVID-19. Maine Center for Disease Control Director Dr. Nirav Shah says another 18 cases of COVID-19 turned up in the state overnight, for a grand total since the outbreak’s onset of 2,588. Of those, 1,891 people have recovered and 99 have died, leaving a total of 598 active cases.

Shah also says state health officials have now declared outbreaks at two congregate care facilities over after no new cases surfaced for a 14-day quarantine period. They include Hope House in Bangor and Edgewood Rehab and Living Center in Farmington.

Updated June 8, 2020 at 5:39 p.m. ET.

Originally published June 8, 2020 at 11:59 a.m. ET.

Maine Public reporters Robbie Feinberg and Barbara Cariddi contributed to this story.