Since Gov. Janet Mills ended Maine’s COVID-19 state of emergency at the end of June, restrictions have been relaxed and large-gathering events have started to resume again in Bangor.
But in recent weeks, as the more contagious delta variant has caused the number of active virus cases in Bangor and elsewhere in Maine to climb again, public health officials are urging Mainers to remain cautious.
Penobscot County is one of seven Maine counties listed as having substantial or high transmission rates of the disease by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As of Friday, the others were Aroostook, Cumberland, Lincoln, Piscataquis, Waldo and York counties.
Cases of the virus in Penobscot County have nearly doubled this week compared with last, with 106 probable or confirmed virus cases from Friday, July 30 to Thursday.
The mounting number of cases in Penobscot County comes at a time when many annual events that went on hiatus last year due to the pandemic are being held again, though some, such as the scaled-down Bangor State Fair, have made changes aimed at preventing the spread of COVID.
Country musician Luke Bryan nearly sold out the 16,000-seat Darling’s Waterfront Pavilion in Bangor on Thursday night, the first concert held there since 2019. The annual Bangor State Fair, which was not held in 2020, opened Friday at Bass Park and more concerts will come to the local Cross Insurance Center and to the waterfront in the coming weeks, including rock band Kiss on Aug. 19. The Bangor Symphony Orchestra also is expected to resume in-person performances in Orono when its season starts in October.
While the U.S. CDC is recommending that both vaccinated and unvaccinated people wear masks indoors in counties with high transmission, the guidelines are not legally binding. Many people in Bangor and surrounding communities continue to go maskless inside businesses, homes and places of religious worship around the area, though mask use has increased as cases have risen.
Bangor city officials are in the process of evaluating the federal guidance, but recommend that Bangor residents follow all U.S. CDC guidelines related to COVID-19, according to a statement from Assistant City Manager Courtney O’Donnell, who acknowledged that the situation was changing rapidly.
“We expect things to continue to evolve,” O’Donnell said Friday.
While Maine has yet to see the high case counts seen by other states like Florida, Mainers are not protected from this dangerous new variant, Northern Light Pharmacy Vice President Matt Marston said. He noted that the state has often lagged nationwide trends by a couple of weeks.
“It could just be timing,” Marston said Thursday. “Taking precautionary steps right now will prevent spread down the road.”
He said that while vaccinated people are far less likely to have symptomatic COVID-19 and to spread it, it is still very much possible for fully vaccinated people to contract and spread the virus.
While many are eligible and have chosen not to get the vaccine, he noted that a substantial number of Mainers aren’t eligible for it because they are younger than 12 years old — about 18,000 people in Penobscot County, according to the Maine CDC. There are also immunocompromised people who are at increased risk of having severe illness even if they are vaccinated.
“The message is clear that wearing a mask protects those around you,” Marston said.
In judging the safety of outdoor events, there is a substantial difference between indoor and outdoor settings, Marston said. The U.S. CDC currently is recommending only that people wear masks in indoor settings.
It is important that Bangor-area residents, vaccinated and unvaccinated, remain vigilant about actions that could spread the virus, Marston said. Outdoor events are far safer because it is harder for the coronavirus to spread in an open space, but could still cause spread if people are not distanced.
“It’s really situation dependent,” Marston said. “People should look at events they’re attending and critique how they anticipate that environment is going to be.”
The delta virus would not be spreading so rapidly, and the new federal guidelines not in place, if more people got vaccinated, Marston said. He said the best solution was for more people to be vaccinated locally — as of Thursday, there still were nearly 50,000 eligible people in the Bangor area who have not received at least one shot of any of the vaccines.
More than 80 percent of residents in Bangor, Glenburn, Hermon and Veazie were vaccinated as of July 26, according to Maine CDC data, which are compiled by ZIP code rather than individual municipalities.
Vaccination rates in the Bangor area range widely over its many rural suburbs: from 47 percent around the town of Greenbush to 91 percent in Hampden and Newburgh as of July 26, according to Maine CDC.
Local institutions have begun taking stronger measures in recent weeks. The University of Maine system, including University of Maine’s flagship campus at Orono, announced Wednesday that unvaccinated students would be barred from campuses when fall classes start, even though none of the vaccines have FDA approval for general use. The university system’s previous policy had allowed students to stay on campus if they would wear masks in university buildings and be tested twice per week.
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The vaccine currently has emergency use authorization, with approval for general use expected in the coming months.
On Monday, Northern Light Health announced it would require all employees at Eastern Maine Medical Center and other system hospitals to be vaccinated as a condition of their employment when FDA approves the vaccines for general use. Bangor Savings Bank announced on Friday that starting next month, it will require all new hires to already be vaccinated and existing unvaccinated employees to be tested once a week.
West Market Square Artisan Coffeehouse in Bangor is one of many outlets that has encouraged people to get the shot, giving free syringe-shaped cookies to customers who showed evidence they were vaccinated.
Guests have not been required to wear masks inside the coffeehouse for a few weeks. Yet, management is keeping an eye on local numbers as they evaluate future policies, manager Wayne Johnson said Thursday. They are also keeping an eye on requirements from other businesses across Bangor.
“It’s something we’re just going to have to kind of play by ear,” Johnson said. “Take it as it comes.”
In every mass crowd in Bangor, there is bound to be a mingling of vaccinated and unvaccinated people. Since the indoor Cross Insurance Center reopened last month, it has asked that unvaccinated people be “courteous enough” to wear a mask, said General Manager Anthony Vail. Those policies have not changed as the delta variant has spread.
“If/when any of the restrictions change, and we’re mandated to enforce per federal, state and/or local governments, we certainly will adhere,” Vail said Friday.
John Ayotte, 32, of Oxford, who attended the Luke Bryan show Thursday night, said he wasn’t too worried about the virus because he is vaccinated. He did bring a facemask for the show just in case.
It was Ayotte’s first country concert, and his third concert ever. With increased talk about the delta variant, he said now was the time to see live music.
“It’s probably going to come to an end again really soon,” Ayotte said. “So we better enjoy it while we can.”
Shania Morin, 16, and Rebecca Michaud, 17, were part of a group of 20-plus current students at Fort Kent High School who drove more than 3 hours to Bangor to see the show. Around 75 percent of people who live in Fort Kent, New Canada and St. John Plantation are vaccinated.
“We love country music,” Michaud said. Being from northern Maine, “it’s just what we grew up with,” she said.
Brandon Jordan, 32, drove more than an hour from Gardiner to see the show with his wife. He wasn’t too worried about being exposed to the delta variant. He already contracted COVID-19 and didn’t get terribly sick from it.
He added he still brought a facemask in case people are coughing and sneezing around him.
“I don’t want to get that [virus] again,” he said.