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Gov. Janet Mills’ Monday move to remove restrictions on indoor dining and other establishments in Cumberland, York and Androscoggin counties came after those areas reached an important milestone with daily cases declining as testing increases.
The governor had delayed reopenings after a surge in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations, with 93 percent of new cases during the final two weeks of May occurring in just those three counties. The jump was driven in part by outbreaks at long-term care facilities in the Portland area, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention said at the time.
The decision to reopen came after cases in those counties stabilized, Mills said. It also comes as Maine continues to increase testing and as the positivity rate declines. Both are metrics indicating that the disease is becoming less widespread in the state.
Maine is hoping to avoid the path of nearly two dozen states that have seen coronavirus cases rise as they have reopened, the Washington Post reported. Reopening with a lower prevalence could help Maine keep transmission down, but these areas will be the ones to watch as the state allows them to reopen on par with less affected parts of the state.
Maine’s cases have been concentrated in three largely urban counties that only just began to see daily case counts decline. With the exception of the three counties where Mills postponed reopening, most counties in Maine have seen a continued decline in new cases since the beginning of May.
For most, that drop came even as the state pushed forward with resuming some business activities, including retail shops and limited dine-in restaurants. Over the last two weeks, cases have declined in the most heavily populated counties of Cumberland and York, too.
Only one county, Androscoggin, did not see as significant of a drop. After seeing only 113 cases of coronavirus in the first two months of the outbreak, it saw nearly 200 cases in the second half of May. Androscoggin County saw nearly as many cases as Cumberland County between May 15 and June 15, despite being home to 180,000 fewer people.
That left it with the highest active per capita caseload of any Maine county, with about 11 current cases for every 10,000 people. The population-adjusted metric is a reversal from a month ago, when Cumberland had 11 active cases per 10,000 while Androscoggin had only five.
After that sharp increase, the outbreak in Androscoggin County might be leveling off a bit. In the first two weeks of June, it saw 125 new cases while 127 people recovered. Restaurants are opening under a rosier backdrop, but the area is not in the clear yet.
Mills warned that restrictions could come back if the virus resurges. Just as the governor postponed reopening of restaurants due to an increase in cases, she said Monday that the state could have to roll back the reopening if the situation worsens again. But Mills and Maine CDC Director Nirav Shah both said that adherence to public health measures, such as mask-wearing, could hopefully prevent that.
“Although there is potential for cases to go up as we resume all forms of economic and social activity, it’s not a foregone conclusion,” Shah said. “Each of these activities can be engaged in safely.”