A group of tourists walk past an empty mask dispenser on May 30, 2021 after getting treats at a local ice cream shop. Credit: Bill Trotter / BDN

Good morning from Augusta. It is Election Day in many Maine cities and towns, including Portland, where 21 candidates are running for nine seats on a charter commission that could change the city’s form of government. Stay cool and here’s your soundtrack.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: “We are disappointed in our officials and will remain vigilant,” said Jim Vallette, a member of the Southwest Harbor Warrant Committee, after a last-minute effort to block the sale of a shuttered Hampden trash plant to a Pennsylvania company failed. “In the meantime, we will continue to work more on the town and state level on ways to minimize waste.”

What we’re watching today

Maine’s COVID-19 numbers are improving rapidly as summer tourism season arrives. The 7-day average of new cases has fallen to 74 as of Tuesday, down from 310 a month ago. The number of patients currently hospitalized with the virus dropped below 60 on Monday for the first time since November 2020.

It is a long-awaited turn for the better that comes as 60 percent of Mainers have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. Maine maintains among the highest vaccination rates of any state, according to federal data, but cases and hospitalizations increased earlier in the spring despite the high vaccination rate. That trend appears to have reversed itself.

There is still unevenness across the state. Dr. Dora Mills, the chief health improvement officer at MaineHealth, the state’s largest hospital system, said the system was continuing to see a greater share of patients from rural areas where vaccine rates remain lower.

The improving conditions have Maine’s tourism industry bracing for what could be a record season. Acadia National Park is on pace to see the most visitors ever in 2021, with officials citing “pent-up travel demand” after last year’s pandemic. While Memorial Day weekend traffic across the state was down compared to 2019, rural areas saw big gains and the overall mark bodes well for a return to normal later on in the season.

At the same time, coronavirus cases and hospitalizations are still higher now than they were one year ago, when early preventive measures helped keep the virus at bay here. But Maine also has a different set of tools this spring, as the state has lifted most business restrictions and is instead relying on widespread vaccinations to block the spread. 

The Maine politics top 3

— “Industry groups look to blunt recycling bill’s momentum in Maine Legislature,” Lori Valigra, Bangor Daily News: “[The bill] has turned into a complex debate on the economic tradeoffs at the heart of the plan. Supporters have said it could lead producers to use recyclable packaging and make the difference in whether towns can afford to have a recycling program amid rising costs, but food producers and their allies have said it would sharply increase costs to consumers.”

— “Maine Senate unanimously backs bill to provide meals free to K-12 students,” Caitlin Andrews, BDN: “The bill from Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, would require the state to pay for the cost of breakfast and lunch served at schools regardless of a child’s economic status. It would do so by paying the difference between the federal reimbursement for free and reduced meals and paying the full price. It received a unanimous vote in the Senate and now heads to the Maine House of Representatives.”

A dark-horse bill that succeeded in the Maine Senate looks to be in trouble after another Monday vote. An effort from Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, to split Maine’s child welfare office into its own department was shot down in the lower chamber on Monday, putting it in a precarious position. The Senate could move to have it reconsidered, as it did with an effort to include grandparents in Maine’s family medical leave program yesterday. 

A number of other high-profile bills are tentatively scheduled for votes today. The Senate is poised to discuss whether to amend the state’s vanity license plate laws — a topic that has split First Amendment advocates and those who worry about the decency of the roads (for an NSFW sample of plates that would be banned, go here) and open primaries. 

A proposal to close the Maine Information Analysis Center is finally coming off the table today, setting up for a contentious, and likely ill-fated, fight in the House. Expect debate on two trash-related bills as well: one to make putting municipal waste in landfills less profitable, and another to keep plastic waste from other countries from coming into Maine ports.

— “New Brunswick premier ‘optimistic’ that July opening will proceed as border talks underway,” Alexander MacDougall, BDN: “Despite falling slightly short of its vaccination goals, there are signs that Canada is preparing to reopen. The Toronto Star reported on Monday that the federal and provincial governments of Canada had begun discussing how to ease border restrictions. Bloomberg also reported that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is preparing to end quarantine restrictions for authorized travelers arriving in Canada.”

Senate passes Collins-led bill to aid victims of ‘Havana syndrome’

The U.S. Senate voted unanimously in favor of a bill to provide financial support for federal employees experiencing mysterious neurological symptoms. More than 130 personnel, many stationed in foreign countries, have been affected by health incidents, which the State Department hypothesized may be linked to microwave radiation, according to the New York Times. The bill, led by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, along with Sens. Mark Warner, D-Virginia, Marco Rubio, R-Florida, and Jeanne Shaheen, D-New Hampshire, offers funding for financial and medical support for individuals affected.

Today’s Daily Brief was written by Caitlin Andrews, Jessica Piper and Michael Shepherd. If you’re reading this on the BDN’s website or were forwarded it, you can sign up to have it delivered to your inbox every weekday morning here.

To reach us, do not reply directly to this newsletter, but contact the political team at mshepherd@bangordailynews.com, candrews@bangordailynews.com or jpiper@bangordailynews.com.

Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...