Signs outside an Old Orchard Beach restaurant are shown in July. A public health expert recommends that Maine hit the brakes on its reopening of bars and consider rolling back increases in restaurants' indoor seating capacity as virus cases surge. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Maine should hit the brakes on its reopening of bars and consider rolling back an increase in restaurants’ indoor seating capacity given the state’s uptick in coronavirus infections, according to a public health expert who follows the pandemic.

The state is seeing a surge in coronavirus cases — including back-to-back days of record case increases — less than three weeks after it entered the fourth phase of its economic reopening. But Gov. Janet Mills has given no indication that she plans to reverse any part of the reopening.

Under the fourth phase of the state’s reopening, which took effect Oct. 13, Mills lifted the indoor seating capacity in restaurants, churches and movie theaters, and the state is set to continue next week with a limited opening of bars and tasting rooms — although the state’s mask mandate has also recently been tightened.

The state also recently added Massachusetts to the list of Northeastern states whose residents can travel to Maine without a two-week quarantine or negative coronavirus test. All of the states on that list — Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, New Hampshire and Vermont — now have increasing cases, too, according to the New York Times.

The overlap of loosening restrictions with rising virus cases is a sign the state should partly roll back its reopening, said Dr. Robert Horsburgh Jr., a professor of epidemiology at Boston University. It takes about two weeks to see if loosening restrictions have had an effect on virus trends, he said.

“You can loosen restrictions, and if cases go up, you should back off,” Horsburgh told the BDN earlier this year when a number of Sunbelt states were seeing their own surges of the virus after abruptly opening bars and restaurants. “You should tighten back down again, and hopefully that will be enough, but maybe you need to clamp down more severely to keep people from circulating.”

Given the new trends in Maine, Horsburgh said in an email on Thursday that the state should reimpose restrictions on restaurants, and that it’s “certainly NOT the time to open bars. By definition, it is not possible to go to bars and restaurants and wear a mask while you are there, so this works against the stricter advisory on wearing masks.”

The fact that the age of Mainers testing positive for COVID-19 has been coming down also suggests “that social mixing among adults is what is driving the spread,” he added.

On Wednesday, Mills and state health officials urged Mainers to heed the new spike in cases and take the same precautions they’ve been advocating throughout the pandemic, including wearing face masks, socially distancing and avoiding gatherings with people not from your household.

But Mills stopped short of saying she would change course from the ongoing loosening of virus restrictions, arguing that Mainers need to take personal responsibility for following those health guidelines, particularly as colder weather makes it harder to spend time outside.

“This is not about shutting down something,” Mills said. “This is about hunkering down. It’s about people getting back into the bunker essentially, doing what common sense dictates and tells them to do. It’s not about my issuing an order today. It’s not about my telling people when they can or can’t shop or open a business or go to school. It’s about everybody using common sense and getting this thing under control.”

The rolling average of new daily coronavirus cases in Maine has been rebounding since mid-August, and new daily case counts have reached new heights over the last two days, with single-day records of 87 and 94 new cases.

At the same time, the portion of weekly coronavirus tests coming back positive and the number of COVID-19 patients in the hospital has been ticking up after remaining low for months. Cases are being widely reported in rural areas that previously had few of them.

There have recently been outbreaks in Waldo and Washington counties connected to churches, but the state’s larger concern is that the virus now seems to be traveling among people who aren’t connected to those institutional outbreaks. Rather, a number of people who have tested positive have reported going to indoor gatherings with their friends, or going out to eat and not wearing masks, according to Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

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