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Mills eases COVID-19 restrictions, lifts capacity limits

Effective May 24, public indoor and outdoor capacity limits will be lifted and physical distancing requirements will be eased

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine's COVID-19 public health protocols will be eased on May 24, Gov. Janet Mills announced Thursday.

Mills discussed the updates in a virtual press conference Thursday afternoon with Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah, Maine Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew, and Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD) Commissioner Heather Johnson.

In an update to the state's reopening plan, called the "Moving Maine Forward Plan," all public indoor and outdoor capacity limits will be lifted. In addition, physical distancing requirements for all public outdoor spaces will be lifted. The plan previously called for capacity limits for indoor gatherings to increase to 75 percent and outdoor gatherings to 100 percent, effective May 24, and physical distancing was still going to be required.

Physical distancing requirements for indoor public venues will also be lifted, the Mills administration said, "except in settings where people are eating or drinking and therefore would be removing their face covering – such as indoor restaurants, bars, dining areas in camps or in congregate living facilities, and break rooms."

The indoor mask requirement will remain in effect, despite updated guidance from the U.S. CDC for people who are fully vaccinated. On Thursday, the U.S. CDC eased indoor mask-wearing guidance for fully vaccinated people, allowing them to safely stop wearing masks inside in most places.

Mills lifted the outdoor face-covering requirement on April 27. 

RELATED: WATCH LIVE: CDC to ease guidance on indoor mask-wearing for fully vaccinated

During the press conference, Mills said they will review the U.S. CDC's updated mask guidance, and said she's anxious to learn from the U.S. CDC how to distinguish people as vaccinated versus unvaccinated.

"Notwithstanding the latest guidance from the U.S. CDC ... Mask wearing remains critical, regardless of the venue," Shah added. 

"When we do see [the U.S. CDC guidance], we will review it carefully, and proceed accordingly," Shah said, "but we just learned about and have not yet received it or reviewed it—that's gotta be step number one. Where we go after that, I can't speculate."

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The Mills administration said the Maine Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and the Maine Department of Education will separately update school-based protocols. Mills said guidance for schools would be updated "soon."

“As we continue to make progress in vaccinating Maine people, it is appropriate to update our protocols ahead of schedule. While we are easing restrictions on capacity limits and physical distancing requirements in most instances, we are maintaining masks for indoor activities and distancing for when you can’t wear a mask, like when you're eating indoors,” Mills said in a statement. “This change aligns with the latest science and makes sense for Maine at this stage, with more people getting vaccinated. We will continuously review our protocols. The fact is the more people get vaccinated, the faster we will be able to get back to normal.”

During the press conference, Mills emphasized that "we're still living through a pandemic," and said these changes don't come without some risk, especially for those who aren't vaccinated. 

“These changes reflect the most recent science on how the virus that causes COVID-19 is transmitted,” Shah said in a release. “However, getting vaccinated remains the best way to limit potential transmission and protect yourself and your community from COVID-19.”

The update comes as Maine reached a vaccination milestone on Wednesday, becoming one of just six states in the U.S. to have 70 percent of adults vaccinated with at least one dose of the vaccine, according to data from the U.S. CDC

As of Wednesday, 1,273,832 total doses had been administered across the state, with 51.75 percent of eligible Mainers receiving a final dose. 

RELATED: Vaccine milestone: 70% of Maine adults have gotten at least 1 dose

In addition to the reopening plan updates, Mills renewed the state of emergency proclamation another 30 days, allowing the state to draw on federal resources to respond to the pandemic. This is the fifteenth extension. 

“We are making important progress, but we must keep getting shots into arms to get this pandemic fully behind us,” Mills said. “I urge all Maine people to get vaccinated so we can get back to normal as soon as possible.”