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AUGUSTA, Maine — The state will ease more business restrictions starting Monday, allowing retail establishments and restaurants to open in a mostly rural group of counties that have not seen community transmission of the new coronavirus, Gov. Janet Mills said Friday.
Retail establishments in those 12 counties will be allowed to reopen on Monday provided they adhere to certain public health precautions, while restaurants may open for limited dine-in services on May 18.
The announcement marked a major shift in policy for Mills and relieved many business leaders, many of whom had expressed concern that continued restrictions would force many restaurants and hotels to shut down permanently in the coming months. Mills has faced pressure to allow parts of the state with fewer confirmed cases to open sooner. She faced criticism from legislative Republicans, who called restrictions “arbitrary” in a letter last weekend.
Cumberland and York counties account for more than half of known cases in the state. Those two counties, as well as Androscoggin and Penobscot, are the only four with confirmed community transmission and are left out of the rural reopening. In all other counties, retailers and restaurants can reopen if they adhere to health guidelines.
As of Friday, there were 1,374 known coronavirus cases in Maine, including 475 active cases. Sixty-three people have died from the virus. Six rural counties — Aroostook, Hancock, Washington, Piscataquis, Oxford and Somerset — have only seven known active cases combined, though Hancock County recorded its first death on Friday.
“Ultimately, the rural plan is the next step in the gradual restart of our economy as we continue to put the health of Maine people first,” Mills said at a Friday news conference.
Employees of businesses that might reopen “should not feel compelled” to go back to work if they had health concerns, Mills said. She asked business owners to be flexible with workers who might be immunocompromised or caring for someone who is.
Retailers that reopen will be limited in the number of people in a store at a given time and must maintain stricter sanitation standards. Restaurants that reopen are asked to use reservations to limit waiting and space tables at least six feet apart, as well as maintain lists of customers for contact tracing purposes.
Greg Dugal, a lobbyist for HospitalityMaine, said the sanitation guidelines would not be an issue for most restaurants, though the requirement that tables be spaced six feet apart would likely mean restaurants are operating at between 30 and 35 percent of capacity.
Wilderness campsites and sporting camps will also be permitted to open in the 12 more rural counties as of May 18. Outdoor exercise classes with fewer than 10 people will be allowed to resume statewide effective Monday. The success of the reopening depends on businesses’ ability to “implement and conscientiously follow these health and safety precautions,” Mills said.
Washington County Commissioner Chris Gardner had reached out to the Mills’ administration a few weeks ago asking for a quicker reopening in his part of the state. Washington County has seen only two coronavirus cases, and both people have recovered.
“We hoped that it would have happened sooner and we may have had a few struggles with the timeline, but ultimately we’re glad that we’re at this point,” Gardner said Friday.
The decision to loosen restrictions came on the heels of an announcement Thursday that the state would more than triple its testing capacity by acquiring tests from IDEXX, a Westbrook-based diagnostics company. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said the procurement will allow the state to test anyone experiencing coronavirus symptoms within a few weeks. Previously, the state had limited testing to high-priority groups, such as health care workers and residents of long-term care facilities.
Mills’ initial reopening plan, announced at the end of April, received pushback from Maine’s hospitality industry over a mandatory 14-day quarantine for travelers entering the state, which many lodging operators said would substantially discourage tourism and decimate businesses.
The governor said on Friday that the state was “working towards that goal” of lifting the quarantine earlier, but it remains in place for now. Dugal, the lobbyist for HospitalityMaine, said the industry has hoped Mills would lift the quarantine order, as out-of-state visitors are already canceling planned trips to Maine in anticipation that would be required to quarantine here.
“Every day that we don’t hear about the 14-day self-quarantine piece being removed, people from out of state have read the newspapers where they come from or even ours and have decided that they are not going to wait,” Dugal said.
A few types of businesses, including hair salons and automobile dealerships, were allowed to open on May 1, but restaurants in the state have been reduced to carry-out only since March. Workers in the hospitality industry account for a disproportionate share of layoffs since the coronavirus crisis began, according to state data.
Watch: Janet Mills announces partnership to triple testing capacity