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AUGUSTA, Maine — Certain Maine businesses can reopen on Friday as part of a gradual plan to lift coronavirus-related restrictions, though many hospitality businesses could remain closed deep into the summer, Gov. Janet Mills said Tuesday.
Maine joins a dozen other states that have started to ease social distancing measures in some way, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. The first stage of the plan continues the governor’s earlier prohibition on gatherings of more than 10 people as well as a mandatory 14-day quarantine for travelers coming to Maine.
It also requires individuals to wear cloth face coverings in settings where it is difficult to maintain social distancing. Previously, there was no statewide requirement on masks. Mills said additional guidance on face coverings will come from the state in the coming days.
The reopening plan allows some businesses, such as hair salons and other personal services, to resume operations while working with the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development on “practical, reasonable, evidence-informed safety protocols.”
It also outlines additional restrictions that might be lifted in stages over the summer provided that case counts remain low, but the plan anticipates that restrictions on key industries such as lodging could continue into July or August, likely putting a damper on the peak tourist season.
Summer festivals, though not specifically addressed by the plan, are unlikely given restrictions on gatherings of more than 10 people through May, a threshold that would rise to 50 for June, July and August. Some of Maine’s biggest festivals have already been canceled, including the Yarmouth Clam Festival and the Potato Blossom Festival in Fort Fairfield, both in July.
Mills said on Tuesday that the relaxing of restrictions did not indicate the pandemic was over, but encouraged Mainers to think about inventing a “new normal.”
“The hard truth is that things are not normal, and they will likely not be normal anytime soon,” she said.
The Democratic governor’s announcement comes a day after the Portland city council voted to extend the city’s stay at home order through May 18. Cumberland County has been hit hardest by the virus, accounting for 45 percent of total cases in the state as well as nearly half of deaths.
On Tuesday, there were 1,040 confirmed cases of the virus in Maine. Only 404 were active, the lowest figure since April 12. Hospitalizations have been declining. The 33 hospitalized patients on Tuesday were the lowest total since Maine began releasing daily figures on April 10. However, 51 people have died from the virus in Maine, with half of deaths associated with outbreaks in long-term care facilities, which remain a concern for the state.
Nirav Shah, the director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said the flattening number of cases “lay the groundwork” for a phased reopening from a health perspective. He cautioned that distancing is still required and said his agency will monitor spikes.
“Even though we are trending in the right direction right now, there is the possibility that things could go back and we could have another spike,” he said.
After the first case of coronavirus in Maine was confirmed on March 12, Mills barred restaurants from dine-in service in mid-March and shut down all nonessential businesses, such as salons, casinos and gyms, a week later.
The stay-at-home order originally issued on March 31 allows people to leave home to go to essential jobs or purchase necessities, as well as exercise outside so long as they stay six feet away from others, but bans other travel. The governor extended that order through the end of May on Tuesday, though individuals will be allowed to go to all open businesses, not just essential ones.
The initial phase of the reopening, which Mills indicated would cover all of May, opens only a few previously closed services, including hair salons, auto dealerships and drive-in movie theaters and religious services. Dine-in restaurants, gyms and retail establishments must stay closed until the second phase, tentatively scheduled for June.
The timeline released by the Mills administration anticipates bars and hotels being closed until July or August. It says a total lifting of restrictions will come at a time “to be determined,” which will be dictated in part by the increased availability of testing for the virus.
Mills’ announcement of the phased plan on Tuesday was accompanied with statements of support from the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, the Maine Medical Association and Maine Hospital Association. Her orders have been the subject of pushback in recent weeks. Hundreds of mostly conservative protesters also convened at the Blaine House last week to voice displeasure with restrictions.
Watch: The new way that Maine is classifying some COVID-19 cases