Gov. Janet Mills’ decision to soon allow fully vaccinated people to go maskless indoors is a seismic shift in state policy that will affect life across Bangor, residents, business leaders and city officials said.
The end of the mask mandate is one of several restrictions Mills will lift on May 24. On that day, businesses also will be able to return to 100 percent capacity, with indoor businesses no longer required to enforce social distancing. The policy announcement came only one day after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released similar guidelines for fully vaccinated people.
The end of the restrictions was a welcoming sign that could bring something of a return to normalcy for his business, said Bangor Mall Cinemas General Manager Scott Warren, 56, of Bangor.
It came as the theater, which spent some periods of the pandemic closed, has begun to see rising ticket sales amid higher vaccination rates and the present or future theatrical release of several anticipated films, including Spiral and A Quiet Place Part II.
“These restrictions being lifted — they certainly can’t do anything but help us,” Warren said.
Maine movie theaters are currently subject to significant capacity limits and social distancing restrictions. Theatergoers are also required to wear masks except when eating and drinking.
Just how many restrictions would be lifted was unclear for parts of Thursday and Friday, with Mills having said in a Thursday press conference that the indoor mask requirement would stay as state officials reviewed the new federal guidelines.
Warren saw the confusion of the conflicting announcements firsthand: he said a man had come into the theater maskless on Thursday afternoon, saying he believed the U.S. CDC announcement allowed him to do so. He politely put on a mask after staff asked him to do so, Warren said.
With the latest guidelines from the state and U.S. CDC, Bangor city officials will also start looking at how they will operate going forward in the coming days, City Manager Cathy Conlow said. Conlow was interviewed a few hours before Mills announced her new guidelines on Friday afternoon.
Members of the public have only been able to participate in and watch meetings of the Bangor City Council and Bangor School Committee remotely since the pandemic hit Maine in March 2020.
Conlow said that many councilors and school committee members had already begun to meet in person for meetings, albeit with masks. The whole school committee attended a meeting on April 27 to approve the selection of incoming Bangor superintendent James Tager.
Some aspects of remote participation will continue, Conlow said. She said resident engagement in remote meetings had progressively risen since meetings first went remote and was seemingly higher than ever.
“I think it’s proven over the pandemic period of time to be a pretty invaluable tool for public participation,” Conlow said.
Not all public institutions will see changes, though: federal requirements still require visitors to Bangor International Airport to wear masks in the airport, airport spokesperson Aimee Thibodeau said. Those rules also apply to Bangor’s Community Connector bus system.
At Bangor’s Hollywood Casino, which has seen an uptick in revenue in recent months, the announcements from Mills and the U.S. CDC was an indication that the casino could soon “bring back more of our amenities”, general manager Austin Muchemore said. The casino had 342 slot machines and seven tables open as of Tuesday, a fraction of the 724 machines and 18 tables it offered in April 2019.
“We will work in the coming days to determine the best next steps when also taking into account staffing, customer comfort and safety,” Muchemore said.
Shoppers at the Bangor Mall and surrounding stores were continuing to wear masks inside on Friday, with many also donning the cloth face coverings outside.
Mills’ policy made sense to Jenna McGrath, 18, who is fully vaccinated. She noted that officials had long promised to lift restrictions after more people got vaccinated. States that had lifted mask mandates had also not seen spikes in cases, McGrath said.
However, Reilley Hicks, 23, said the U.S. CDC guidelines may have been released too soon, as many Americans have not yet been vaccinated. While she is fully vaccinated, she plans to continue wearing a mask indoors until more Americans get the shot.
“They don’t know that I’m vaccinated,” Hicks said. “I don’t want to make anyone else uncomfortable.”
Forty-seven percent of Americans had received at least one shot as of Friday, including children 11 and under who are currently ineligible for any of the available vaccines. Maine is ahead of the national average, with about 49.5 percent of the population having received at least one dose.