Maine businesses were largely optimistic Friday following Gov. Janet Mills’ announcement ending the state’s mask mandate for vaccinated people, but few expect an immediate return to a pre-pandemic normal when the policy goes into effect on May 24.
Mills announced Friday that Maine would follow updated guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, meaning fully vaccinated people — defined as those who received a final vaccine dose at least two weeks prior — would not need to wear masks in other indoor settings, including stores, bars and restaurants.
As of Friday, roughly 521,000 Mainers qualify as fully vaccinated. By the effective date of May 24, when the policy goes into effect, nearly 594,000 people — about 44 percent of the state’s population — will be fully vaccinated, according to state data. Vaccination rates continue to vary widely by age group and children under the age of 12 are still not eligible for shots.
It was a major step in the state’s return to normal, but many businesses signaled that requirements would remain in effect. State officials also gave little indication Friday as to how masking for unvaccinated people would be enforced. Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew said there would likely be changes to the Democratic governor’s previous executive order on face coverings next week.
“We will certainly be working with businesses so that they can understand what their options are,” Lambrew said.
Curtis Picard, president of the Retail Association of Maine, characterized the Friday announcement as a “big step forward towards full reopening” but said some stores would likely continue to require everyone to wear a mask, an option he saw as more viable than trying to distinguish between vaccinated and unvaccinated customers.
“I suspect you’ll see some businesses that will continue to require masking of their employees and maybe customers as well,” Picard said. “They have the right to do that, and if they think that’s the safest course of action for them, they can do it.”
Hannaford, the grocery chain with more than 60 locations in Maine, will continue to require face coverings for customers and employees at its stores for now, a spokesperson said Friday. The regional chain has continued to mandate face coverings in its New Hampshire stores even after Gov. Chris Sununu ended the state’s mask mandate in mid-April.
Mills’ announcement on masks was accompanied by news that indoor restaurants and bars would no longer need to keep tables six feet apart from each other, allowing them to return to full capacity on May 24. The state will also begin phasing out COVID-19 prevention checklists for businesses, a process that is expected to start in the coming days, Lambrew said.
The end of physical distancing requirements was a welcome change for restaurants and bars, said Greg Dugal, director of government affairs for HospitalityMaine. But he said that many restaurants were unlikely to return to full capacity right away, noting some would still want to take virus precautions and faced other challenges, such as labor shortages.
“There isn’t some sort of mad rush to go back to 100 percent occupancy,” Dugal said. “Everybody’s got a different view on what they think they should do next.”
Geoff Houghton, who owns of The Liberal Cup in Hallowell and the Run of the Mill Public House & Brewery in Saco, said he wished there was a longer runway before making the sweeping announcement on masks so businesses had longer to prepare and unvaccinated people would have the chance to be fully inoculated.
But after a rough year, he said he was ready to have bar crowds back, particularly in his small capital-area pub where the bar is the main draw.
“We’ve been through so much and we’ve been adhering to the guidelines,” Houghton said. “I guess we’re going to adhere to the guidelines through the good times and the bad times.”
Dugal said he thought standardizing Maine’s policy with the new federal guidelines was also useful because it reduced confusion after wide reporting the previous day about the U.S. CDC’s new recommendations.
“I talked to dozens of people today who thought nobody needed to wear a mask anyway,” he said.
BDN writer Michael Shepherd contributed to this report.