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Mills administration reduces indoor gathering limit, postpones reopening of bars, amends travel protocols amid rise in cases

Maine’s 7-day COVID-19 positivity rate, while still significantly lower than other states, doubled over the last two weeks to 0.92 percent.

AUGUSTA, Maine — As COVID-19 cases have increased both in Maine and across the country, Gov. Janet Mills' administration on Sunday announced actions aimed at preventing and mitigating the spread of the virus. These include reduced indoor gathering limits, delayed reopening of bars and tasting rooms, and amended travel protocols for travelers coming to Maine from New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut.

Reducing Indoor Gathering Limits

Effective Wednesday, Nov. 4, indoor gatherings will return to a maximum of 50 people, regardless of capacity. The gathering limit on outdoor activities remains at 100 people under existing guidelines, with physical distancing and the use of face coverings. 

Occupancy limits for retail establishments will remain at 5 people per 1,000 square feet of shopping space. Mills' administration had previously increased indoor seating limits to 50 percent of permitted capacity or 100 people, whichever was less.

Postponing the Reopening of Bars and Tasting Rooms

Mills' administration had previously anticipated reopening bars and tasting rooms to indoor seated service on Monday, Nov. 2. However, the reopening of bars and tasting rooms for indoor seated service is postponed until further notice. Mills' administration will continue to evaluate public health metrics to determine when it is safe to reopen bars and tasting rooms for indoor seated service.

“To the business owners and employees of bars and tasting rooms, I am deeply sorry that we have been forced to make this decision to postpone your reopening to prevent the further spread of the virus. I know that you were ready and willing to follow public health guidance to keep yourselves and Maine people safe. We realize that this decision will cause hardship. We do not take this action lightly, but the rapid rise in cases in just the past six days means that we cannot in good conscience proceed with the planned reopening,” Mills said. “My administration will continue to do all we can to support Maine’s small businesses and hardworking families through these challenging times and will continue to seek further financial relief from Congress for Maine businesses who have lost so much already.”

“This continues to be a challenging time for small businesses across the country,” Maine Department of Economic and Community Development Commissioner Heather Johnson said. “We hope that the recent Maine Economic Recovery Grant Program has supported some of the businesses impacted, and we will continue to work to find creative ways to support businesses and their employees.”

"We did some work last week to get it ready for reopening," Matthew Haskell, owner of 6 Blaze locations across the state said.

Haskell's Biddeford location was supposed to be brand new in March, right before the pandemic.

"We were three days away from opening when the orders came down originally to close down," he said.

Haskell said he was able to set up outdoor seating during the summer, like many other bars and tasting rooms.

But for those businesses that haven't been able to, it's been a challenge.

"We have a lot of members who are really hanging on a thread that didn't have the opportunity to open up this summer," Sean Sullivan, executive director of the Maine Brewer's Guild said.

He added that many of its members have been taking advantage of curbside pickup since the start of the pandemic.

As for Haskell, he says it's frustrating that bars and tasting rooms fall under the same category.

He adds he would be able to keep people just as safe in all his locations.

RELATED: 'This is serious': CDC Director Dr. Shah after Maine coronavirus, COVID-19 cases surge by more than 100 in last 24 hours

Adjusting States Exempt from Maine’s Quarantine or Testing Alternative

Effective Wednesday, Nov. 4, people traveling from New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut are no longer exempt from Maine’s quarantine or negative test requirement. People coming to Maine from these states must either quarantine for 14 days or receive a negative COVID-19 test with a sample taken less than 72 hours from arrival in Maine, quarantining while awaiting test results. This protocol includes Maine residents returning from one of the non-exempt states.

The travel decision comes after the Mills administration reviewed recent public health data, including other states' rapidly rising prevalence of the virus and positivity rates. In reviewing these metrics, the administration said Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey demonstrated an alarming increase in the prevalence of the virus. New Hampshire, Vermont, and Massachusetts remain exempt from the 14-day quarantine or negative test requirement, although the Mills administration did not that it is closely evaluating public health metrics in Massachusetts and may reinstate the quarantine or negative test requirement if trends do not improve.

Even with these updated travel protocols, Governor Mills strongly recommends that visitors from exempt states and Maine people returning from exempt states, especially during the upcoming holiday season, obtain a test in order to “know before you go.” Under the Department of Health and Human Services Standing Order, any person in Maine who feels they need a test, with or without symptoms, can get a test without an order from a primary care provider.

RELATED: US records 99,000 COVID-19 cases Friday, setting new world mark

Extending the Keeping Maine Healthy Grant Program

To support Maine communities as they promote compliance with public health and safety measures, the Mills administration extended its financial support to Maine municipalities established by the Keep Maine Healthy Plan. The Administration previously allotted more than $13 million in federal CARES ACT funding to 132 municipalities and two Tribal governments to develop and implement their own COVID-19 prevention, education, and protection plans.

These plans include printing and posting COVID-19 prevention information; developing local educational activities consistent with CDC guidelines; installing fences, tape, and signage for physical distancing in public spaces and closed streets; providing staff to limit crowds in front of restaurants and other public sites; purchasing and making available personal protective equipment and hand sanitizer at public locations; and supporting the purchase of extra cleaning supplies and added staff time for enhanced cleaning and management of public spaces and restroom facilities. Plans may also support staff time for a Code Enforcement Officer, Local Health Officer, or other designated person to serve as the local contact for educating local businesses on best practices, following up on public complaints, and reporting public health violations to State officials if those complains cannot quickly be resolved through local efforts. All eligible municipal expenses through December will be now reimbursed.

“Maine’s cities, towns and Tribal governments are invaluable partners in our work to keep Maine healthy during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Maine Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew said. “The extension of this program will bolster their creative efforts to educate residents, visitors and businesses about the importance of public health measures and ensure compliance with requirements.”

Why these changes now?

This week, Maine recorded a significant increase in cases, hospitalizations, and positivity rates. Friday saw 103 new cases of COVID-19, the highest single-day increase in Maine since the beginning of the pandemic. Saturday saw 98 new cases, and one more person lost their life to the virus. Maine’s 7-day positivity rate, while still significantly lower than other states, doubled over the last two weeks to 0.92 percent.

“If we do not control this outbreak, we may never get this evil genie back in the bottle,” Mills said.

This weekend, the nation surpassed more than nine million total cases of COVID-19, and more than 230,000 deaths.

“Epidemiological data and case investigations during the past week show that Maine is experiencing widespread community transmission,” Dr. Nirav Shah, Director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said. “Maine people and visitors can help limit further spread of the virus that causes COVID-19 by adhering to proven safety measures. Every time you leave your home, please do so with the intent of making Maine safer for yourself and others.”

The Mills administration also recently announced it will distribute 400,000 rapid antigen tests, including 300,000 provided to up to 65 Walgreens pharmacy locations from Kittery to Madawaska. Testing will be available to the public at no charge as a drive-through service at a future date in November. People can find COVID-19 testing sites near them HERE.

With the vast majority of Maine’s economy reopened under Stage 4 of the Restarting Maine’s Economy Plan, Mills is reiterating that it is critical that Maine people take steps to protect themselves, their businesses, and others by wearing face coverings indoors and outdoors, keeping six feet apart, and washing hands often with soap and warm water. Her administration also encourages employers to allow employees to work remotely whenever practicable and encourages Maine people to patronize Maine businesses by ordering curbside and using delivery services.