A cyclist pedals by the Maine Medical Center construction site on Congress Street in Portland on Thursday Dec. 3, 2020. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Mainers are cutting back on their trips outside of the home as the coronavirus situation worsens, but not as drastically as they did at the start of the pandemic, according to survey and movement data.

Maine set a record earlier this week with 349 new coronavirus cases confirmed in a single day. As of Friday, 164 individuals were currently hospitalized with the virus, up from 37 four weeks ago. The seven-day positivity rate sits at 4.9 percent, Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Nirav Shah said Friday, after dipping below 1 percent a few months ago.

As the landscape of the coronavirus outbreak has changed, so have Mainers’ habits. The use of masks or face coverings has increased this fall compared to the spring and summer, according to survey data. At the same time, people are also making more trips outside the home compared to the start of the pandemic, when case counts were lower but economic restrictions were tighter.

In a 50-state survey released this week by researchers at Harvard and Northeastern, 75 percent of Mainers said they regularly wore face coverings this fall, up from 65 percent over the summer and 55 percent in the spring. The fall figure put Maine roughly average in mask-wearing, at 20th in the nation.

The increase in the use of face coverings, which was also seen in most other states, comes as Maine has tightened its mask mandate. Gov. Janet Mills first issued a face covering requirement in May and has updated it as the year has gone on, requiring retailers in certain parts of the state to enforce the order and extending it to include nearly all public spaces in early November.

But state health officials have advised that masks alone are not a guarantee of safety. Shah reiterated that point during a Wednesday press briefing, saying mask-wearing “diminishes the risk substantially” but does not prevent exposure to the virus.

The Harvard and Northeastern researchers found that Mainers were less likely to be following public health precautions other than mask-wearing compared to early in the pandemic. Fewer survey respondents said they had been avoiding contact with other people, avoiding crowds and washing their hands regularly in both the summer and fall surveys compared to the spring.

Anonymized cell phone data matches the survey results, finding that — while movement peaked over the summer, when the incidence of the virus was lower — it only came down partially this fall as cases skyrocketed.

When Maine saw its first coronavirus cases in mid-March, Mills moved quickly to shutter nonessential businesses and limit gathering sizes. Data suggest that Mainers swiftly changed their behavior, with fewer trips to restaurants, retailers and grocery stores in late March and early April.

The state gradually lifted those restrictions beginning in May, with most businesses allowed to resume limited indoor service by July. Mobility patterns shifted accordingly over that period with trips to retailers and grocery stores returning to the pre-pandemic baseline and staying at or above that level into September.

The return to economic activities over the summer did not immediately correspond with an uptick in virus cases, with Maine seeing new daily cases average in the teens or low twenties in July and August. But cases have risen sharply in the past six weeks, with state officials pointing to small, indoor gatherings among friends and family as the primary driver of spread.

As cases have risen, the state has avoided resuming most economic restrictions, with Mills pointing to a lack of the federal aid to support shuttered businesses and unemployed workers. She postponed the reopening of bars and tasting rooms for indoor seating in early November, though the effects may have been muted, as a large majority of establishments that serve alcohol are classified as restaurants, not bars. The governor also tightened mask requirements and instituted a 9 p.m. curfew for businesses going into the holiday season, which she extended on Friday into the new year.

The cell phone data show that Mainers are going out less than they were over the summer, when case levels were lower. After returning to normal levels in July and August, retail visits were down about 25 percent from pre-pandemic levels as of the end of November. But that decline is significantly smaller compared to the spring, when visits dropped by nearly 50 percent.

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