Demonstrators gather at a rally to peacefully protest and demand an end to institutional racism and police brutality, Wednesday, June 3, 2020, in Portland, Maine. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty | AP

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The directive to Maine people since the coronavirus pandemic hit the state in March has been to keep their distance from others and avoid large crowds to prevent transmission of the highly contagious respiratory virus.

There’s still a ban on gatherings of more than 50 people, but large crowds have gradually grown more common in recent weeks.

First, protesters started demonstrating against business shutdowns Gov. Janet Mills has ordered to slow the coronavirus’ spread. Over the past week, protests opposing racism and police violence have occurred throughout the state, with the largest protests drawing hundreds of people. And on Friday, President Donald Trump’s visit to Bangor and Guilford is expected to draw crowds in both places.

[Our COVID-19 tracker contains the most recent information on Maine cases by county]

Public health experts across the country and in Maine have said they’re concerned the large gatherings could accelerate the spread of the coronavirus, after weeks during which people have largely stayed out of public.

“It is a concern when we see mass gatherings of individuals, particularly when they are not practicing social distancing or when they are not wearing face coverings,” said Dr. James Jarvis, incident commander for Northern Light Health, who has been handling much of the 10-hospital system’s response to the coronavirus. “I am particularly concerned about some of the gatherings that we’ve seen because we do know that when we vocalize by either yelling or singing, that that produces more of those aerosolized particles, and therefore transmission can be even greater.”

The coronavirus is transmitted by respiratory droplets emitted when people talk, sneeze or cough. And much of the transmission can come from people who aren’t experiencing symptoms and therefore don’t know they’re sick and are spreading the virus.

Plus, police in many places across the country have used tear gas and pepper spray against protesters, which incite coughing and sneezing.

U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams has warned that large gatherings protesting the death of George Floyd at the hands of four Minneapolis police officers will almost certainly lead to new COVID-19 outbreaks.

And a small, rural place can be especially susceptible to a so-called super-spreading event — potentially a gathering such as a funeral or protest — that can infect a large portion of the population at a single time.

Guilford, with a population of fewer than 1,500, is located in an area of the state, Piscataquis County, that has seen only one documented case of the coronavirus so far. And the county’s median age of 51 makes it the oldest county in the state. Seniors are especially vulnerable to complications from the coronavirus.

Maine disease investigators haven’t yet detected new infections connected to protests in recent weeks, Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said earlier this week. But disease investigations take time, he said, and in many cases, not enough time has elapsed yet for new infections to be confirmed.

Shah, however, acknowledged the greater likelihood of disease transmission when people are close together.

“The more people that are wearing face coverings, whatever the situation, overall, the less likelihood of transmission there is,” he said Monday during a press briefing.

Maine Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew advised people to respect the state’s 50-person limit on gatherings.

“We have a large gathering limit of 50 people, partly because we know it’s harder to do that kind of physical distancing when you exceed that amount,” she said. “We’ve been encouraging all gatherings, including protests, to maintain that 50-person limit.”

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