Limitations on travel and large gatherings will continue until at least May 31, but Mainers could soon be able to play golf, buy a car and visit select state parks and historic sites.
Or get a haircut.
Those are the immediate implications of a sweeping plan unveiled Tuesday by Gov. Janet Mills to reopen parts of a state economy largely paralyzed by COVID-19. The governor said the plan will be implemented in four phases and determined by Maine’s ability to contain a virus that has resulted in 51 deaths and 1,040 known infections statewide.
Maine Center for Disease Control director Dr. Nirav Shah acknowledged that infections of the novel coronavirus are likely more widespread, but he said that the outbreak appears to be trending in the right direction. He also said the CDC is partnering with health care providers to expand testing, which is crucial to tracking the outbreak and swapping widespread restrictions that Maine has operated under for the past month with more targeted quarantines.
Shah said details on the revamped testing program will be announced in coming days. In the meantime, Maine will proceed with a gradual reopening of certain businesses on Friday if those establishments can demonstrate that they can restrict customer and employee contact and implement other safety and hygiene requirements.
The governor’s announcement came as at least 10 other states announced phased reopening strategies amid an outbreak that has killed more than 58,000 Americans and infected at least 1 million others.
“I am proud of the work Maine people have done to mitigate the spread of the virus and to flatten the curve, but our work is far from over,” Mills said. “While this plan presents a path forward for gradually and safely restarting our economy, it should not lure Maine people into thinking that this pandemic is almost over or that things will be back to normal soon. The hard truth is that they are not, that they likely will not be for a long time and that, with this plan, we are inventing a new normal — a different way of doing business, shopping, traveling and enjoying the Maine outdoors in ways that keep us all safe.”
While the phased economic restart will begin Friday, Mainers will still be required to limit travel and gatherings of 10 or more people are prohibited. People traveling into the state will still be required to quarantine for 14 days, a restriction that will likely remain in place for the duration of the summer tourist season and potentially the fall.
During Tuesday’s press briefing, Mills acknowledged that the quarantine mandate for visitors will likely hamper a tourism industry that employs more than 100,000 people and is worth $600 million in tax revenue. She also said the quarantine will be difficult to enforce, but is hopeful that most visitors will abide by restrictions in place in other states.
The extension of the governor’s stay-at-home order will continue to affect employers and state workers, roughly 80 percent of whom have been asked to work from home. The work-from-home recommendation remains for private employers. Additionally, the governor’s new order will require Mainers to wear face coverings or masks in public settings where physical distancing may be difficult. The governor said more details on the mask requirement will be announced soon.
Phase 1 of her reopening plan begins Friday and affects health care providers, barber shops, hair salons, drive-thru religious services, car dealerships and some outdoor recreation, such as golf — but with some restrictions. It will also allow visitors to selected state parks and public lands, but coastal state parks will remain closed until at least June, or the tentative beginning of Phase 2.
The latter could also mark the lifting of restrictions on gatherings of 10 or more people by swapping it with a restriction on 50 or more people. Phase 2 could also mark the limited opening of restaurants, fitness centers, retail stores, coastal state parks and lodging and campgrounds for Maine residents.
Phase 3, tentatively slated to begin July 1, could maintain the restriction on gatherings of 50 people or less, which would likely to cancel popular summer festivals, but would allow for lodging, campgrounds and the reopening of bars.
There is no timeline for Phase 4, which would ease many restrictions.
Mills emphasized that there are no “hard and fast” deadlines with the reopening plan, adding that implementation hinges on Maine’s ability to manage the outbreak and ensure that it won’t swamp the state’s health care system. That goal has been the priority in Maine and other states implementing restrictions.
As of Tuesday, the Maine CDC reported an increase of 17 confirmed cases of COVID-19 from the day before, but CDC director Shah said hospitalization rates and intensive care bed utilization appear to be trending in the right direction.
Five days ago, the Maine CDC reported its single largest case increase — 30 cases — and five deaths. All five fatalities were at the Maine Veterans’ Home in Scarborough, and the case increase was largely driven by outbreaks in other long-term care facilities.
Shah has said the prevalence of COVID-19 in those facilities is because the disease is highly transmissible in congregate settings. However, he and Mills have cautioned against assuming only those settings are threatened by the virus or that it’s not elsewhere.
“When you go looking for something, you find it,” Shah said, adding that the Maine CDC has deployed universal testing at nursing homes and long-term care facilities to identify and contain outbreaks. He said a similar level of testing will be needed to contain the outbreak statewide.
Testing has become a flashpoint between the states and federal government as pressure mounts on governors to restart their respective economies. The Trump administration has not delivered on its promise for more expansive testing in the states and reports circulated Monday that governors are being told that a ramp up will largely be their responsibility.
Shah indicated Tuesday that Maine’s plan will involve a partnership with local hospitals and providers.
In the meantime, Maine businesses will have to work with the state Department of Economic and Community Development to ensure that businesses allowed to reopen are meeting certain health and hygiene guidelines.
“There is no doubt these have been challenging times, but the Department will work closely and collaboratively with our private sector partners to ensure that we are able to reopen businesses in a manner that protects public health,” DECD Commissioner Heather Johnson said in a statement.
Dana Connors, president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, said in a statement that he supports the governor’s plan.
“Maine businesses are eager to do their part to stem the tide on this virus, and we look forward to our continued partnership to that end,” he said.