AUGUSTA, Maine — Less than two weeks after her initial, strict reopening plan, Gov. Janet Mills is easing off restrictions for 12 of Maine’s counties, where COVID-19 cases have been relatively few.

On Friday, Mills announced that all retail stores will be able to reopen as of Monday, May 11, and restaurants in those same counties will be allowed to open, with certain limitations, on Monday, May 18.

"The rural reopening plan is aimed at parts of our state...specifically the counties where community transmission (or coronavirus) is not present and have fewer cases,” said Gov. Mills at the Friday CDC briefing.

The counties of Aroostook, Washington, Hancock, Piscataquis, Somerset, Franklin, Oxford, Waldo, Knox, Lincoln and Sagadahoc will be allowed to have the businesses reopen, under strict guidelines for social distancing and other measures.

Cumberland, York, Penobscot and Androscoggin Counties, which have generally had the most cases and community transmission of the virus, will remain under restriction until June 1, at least as the order currently stands.

“Community transmission in those counties poses too much risk. Although there are rural areas in those counties community transmission still (presents)."

The order has been eagerly awaited by those in the restaurant industry, which, along with bars, have been shut down longer than any other business in the current emergency.

Steve Hewins of Hospitality Maine, a trade association for restaurants and hotels, says he helped the Mills Administration develop those new guidelines to allow the reopening. They cover a range of things customers will see and not see--not just seating and capacity but also health and safety practices behind the scenes.

“Generally speaking restaurants have to reduce capacity and build around social distance. So tables six feet apart as an example. And other features including how they are served by waiters and service providers as well,“ said Hewins. 

The order requires outside dining if possible, something Hewins said restaurants are already working on in their own communities. Rockland, for example, is discussing the idea of closing off Main Street at night to allow for tables on sidewalks and possibly in the street. 

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Gov. Mills says the current stay at home order remains in place, and that people are allowed to travel to a restaurant or store in the reopened counties, but then should return home. She says other requirements, such as masks, social distance in public, and a limit on the size of gatherings, remain in force. The current State of Civil Emergency declaration is currently in effect until May 15. Mills said Friday it could be renewed, but would not commit either way.

Steve Hewins says there will still be a lot of work, expense, and worry for restaurants, and some won’t be ready to take on the new requirements. But he says having the plan, and an opening date in many areas is still significant progress. 

“If nothing else, restaurants are looking to survive at this point. How do we get past the pandemic? What level of business do we need to survive?”

The revised reopening plan also allows some fitness centers to reopen for outside classes, allows “remote campsites and sporting lodges” to reopen. 

Hotels and restaurants in the other four counties still aren’t allowed to open until June 1, and so far there is no change to the requirement of people traveling to Maine to self-quarantine for 14 days when they arrive. 

The Governor and economic development commissioner Heather Johnson both said Friday they are constantly reviewing all those requirements, and further changes are possible.

The restaurant industry is still hoping all restaurants can be open for Memorial Day weekend, the symbolic start of the summer season. Johnson said that question, too, is part of the ongoing review.

At NEWS CENTER Maine, we're focusing our news coverage on the facts and not the fear around the illness. To see our full coverage, visit our coronavirus section, here: /coronavirus

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