Ed Sanders, left, of Oakfield stands in the checkout line at Andy's IGA grocery store in Houlton, after mask requirements were lifted for vaccinated residents. Credit: Alexander MacDougall / Houlton Pioneer Times

One of the first things that Colby Horne did Monday morning when he opened up his downtown Belfast business, Colburn Shoe Store, was to remove the “Masks Required, Please” placard from the door.

It was an action he performed with relish, because as of Monday, Maine’s pandemic mask mandate and indoor capacity restrictions were no longer in effect.

The dropping of the mask requirements and limits for the number of people who can congregate indoors come just as Maine becomes the first state in New England to fully vaccinate more than half of its population, and on the day that Maine saw its lowest number of new COVID-19 cases in three months. Maine’s mask mandate went into effect in April 2020, though many people had been wearing them prior to it being a requirement.

It’s the most visible sign yet that life is beginning to return to a pre-pandemic sense of “normal.”

Colby Horne, the owner of Colburn Shoe Store in downtown Belfast, smiles on the first day of eased mask and capacity limits. Credit: Abigail Curtis / BDN

“It felt good to take the sign off,” Horne said. “It’s been a long 15 months.”

Most of the customers still wore their masks upon entering. Some took them off as they looked around and saw that Horne and his employees were maskless, but others kept them on. It’s all good, Horne said.

“It’s awkward trying to get a pulse on your customers. You don’t want them to feel uncomfortable,” he said. “People will get used to it. It’s tricky, business-wise, to do the right thing.”

Horne said he has been strictly following guidelines from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention since the pandemic began. He’s still following the rules, he said, and is enjoying the ability to relax and take his mask off in his store. Some of his customers seem to be, too.

“People are smiling,” he said.

Andy Marino, owner of Andy’s IGA in Houlton, has changed store policy following the new guidelines to allow both shoppers and staff who have been fully vaccinated to go maskless.

“We’re doing what the CDC is telling us,” Marino said. “If you’ve been fully vaccinated, you don’t have to wear a mask.”

Marino estimated between 80 to 90 percent of his staff had been vaccinated against COVID-19, thanks to donations of surplus vaccines from the Aroostook Band of Micmacs tribe in Presque Isle.

“We’re very fortunate,” Marino said. “It should be a shout out to the Micmacs, because they contacted us and said, ‘Hey, come on up and we’re gonna do the grocery people.’”

In this March 2020 file photo, a woman begins shopping at Hannaford in Scarborough. Credit: Nick Schroeder/ BDN

Hannaford adopted a similar policy, requiring masks only in stores where a local law or ordinance enforces it. At the Brewer Hannaford on Monday afternoon, around a third of shoppers and a number of staff members were not wearing masks.

At Mike’s Country Store in downtown Ellsworth, cashier Hunter Clark stood behind a plexiglass shield mounted in front of the register, but was not sporting a mask. He said some customers at the Water Street business expressed relief Monday at not having to mask up inside the store.

“One guy said ‘I can breathe again,’” Clark said.

Restaurants are also now allowed to operate at full capacity, and without masks for vaccinated customers. Brett Soucy, owner of Frank’s Bake Shop in Bangor, stopped indoor dining within days of the pandemic beginning back in March 2020. He hasn’t had indoor dining this entire time, but on Monday, he put the tables and chairs back in.

“Today, it was really nice to see people’s faces and smiles and have them come in and sit down,” Soucy said. “We have been extremely safe this whole time, and it’s hard not to continue following those rules. But there’s also a sense that eventually, this had to happen. And I think today went really well.”

Harry and Kirsten Hewes, owners of watersport retailer Sun Sports in Naples, can fit up to 150 people into their store rather than the 35 last summer with social-distancing mandates dropped. Credit: Lori Valigra / BDN

On the Causeway in Naples, which sees a heavy influx of tourists in the summer, Sun Sports co-owner Kristen Hewes said she already was getting brisk business and was personally happy to not have to wear a mask during the long business hours. The Causeway is a strip of Route 302 in southwestern Maine where restaurants and gift shops are concentrated.

Hewes asked her eight employees how they felt about mask-wearing in the store, and they agreed masks would not be required for customers who are vaccinated. Customers will be on an honor system about their vaccination status.

She’s happy to be able to allow in the 150 customers the store can hold rather than the 35 or so last summer when social distancing was required. Still, the store has had strong business during the pandemic because of the focus on outdoor sports, she said.

Across the Causeway at Freedom Cafe and Pub, owner Darryl Murray was ripping down a sign celebrating the last day of the mask mandate on Sunday and replacing it with one explaining that the cafe will adhere to the Maine CDC’s guidelines. He, too, will not ask for proof of vaccination.

“Customers can do whatever they want to do to stay safe, and they should respect one another,” Murray said. “Mask shaming will not be tolerated.”

Corey Buffett, kitchen manager (left), and Darryl Murray, owner, of Freedom Cafe and Pub in Naples, are following Maine CDC guidelines in allowing vaccinated people to shed masks indoors, but they won’t ask about vaccination status. Credit: Lori Valigra / BDN

Outside the Ellsworth Renys on High Street, Surrey resident Donna Doyen was browsing through the potted plants Monday afternoon without a mask on.

“It feels good,” she said. “Liberating.”

She said she did not understand why some stores, unlike Renys, continue to require masks. A sign outside the door said fully vaccinated people did not have to wear masks, but asked that people to continue to stay 6 feet apart when inside the store. A mix of customers wearing masks and not wearing masks came and went from the store.

“What gives them the right to make you wear a mask when the science says you don’t have to?” Doyen said, adding that she spent the winter in Florida, where there was no mask mandate.

Doyen said she still carries a mask around but is trying to avoid businesses that still require masks. If she has to put one on to get some needed shopping done, she will, but “I prefer not to.”

While the mask mandate has been lifted in Maine for fully vaccinated people, there are some policies that will continue. Face coverings are still required at health care facilities, as well as on planes, buses and other forms of public transportation. Students and staff in schools are still required to wear masks indoors, too.

Event venues across the state have also moved to schedule concerts, festivals and other events, like the Beats & Eats Food Truck Festival, set for June 26 on the Bangor Waterfront. In Portland, Thompson’s Point sold out an Aug. 21 concert from the band Lake Street Dive in less than 24 hours.

At Left Bank Books in Belfast, the very first customer of the day “burst into tears” when she came in and took her mask off. Others have gotten emotional, too. Lindsay McGuire, one of the owners, understands why.

“It’s weird for all of us,” she said. “It’s kind of like taking training wheels off for the first time. It’s also extremely exhilarating.”

One customer, Debbie Mickelson of Belfast, said it was her first time going maskless in a store since the pandemic began.

“It feels good,” she said. “It’s also worrisome. I think there are people out there who will say they’re vaccinated, but who aren’t. Hopefully, my vaccine is strong and I don’t have to worry.”

At Renys in Belfast, even though customers did not have to wear a mask in the store if they are fully vaccinated — “Please Be Honest and Be Kind,” a doorway placard read — most of the shoppers still kept them on.

Nick Cullen of Belfast, a social worker, was one of those.

“It feels a little bit like a step into the unknown,” he said.

Amber Riposta of Stockton Springs kept her mask in a pocket — but not on her face — while doing her shopping. She was happy to not wear a mask, but said after all this time, not wearing one will take a bit of getting used to.

“It feels strange, actually,” she said. “I think that after something like this, you have to find a new normal.”

BDN writers Abigail Curtis, Alex MacDougall, Bill Trotter and Lori Valigra contributed to this report.

Emily Burnham

Emily Burnham is a Maine native and proud Bangorian, covering business, the arts, restaurants and the culture and history of the Bangor region.