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Updated: October 29, 2020

Mills holds off on tighter business restrictions as COVID-19 cases rise in Maine

A long line of people, separated by orange cones, stand outside a greenhouse Photo / Maureen Milliken Shoppers stand in line outside of Longfellow's Greenhouses in Manchester in May. Maine's cases have risen to levels not seen since that month. But state officials say the spike is mostly caused by small gatherings, not businesses, which in general have been following the rules.
What are the numbers behind Maine's increase in COVID-19 cases?
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Coronavirus cases in the state have spiked to levels not seen since May, but Gov. Janet Mills said Wednesday that Maine won't go back to stricter restrictions on businesses, which she said are following the rules and helping the state's economy come back.

She instead urged individuals to give more attention to wearing masks, physical distancing, washing hands and avoiding large gatherings, saying it's everyone's "civic duty" to keep the surge down.

Although business restrictions won't be tightened, the message at Wednesday's news briefing was clear: With 76 new cases reported Wednesday and 292 in the past five days, and a sharp uptick in hospitalizations and intensive care unit patients, if people don't exercise "common sense," things could get a lot worse, fast.

"Something’s happening and it's not good," Mills said. "We do not have this virus under control. The question before us is the same one we faced in March. Can we control it? And the answer depends on all of us."

Mills said that businesses following state guidelines have helped keep Maine's numbers down, which in turn has attracted visitors from other states. She didn't provide specific numbers, but said that revenues and business in general "are better than we thought they would be." But she said that all can go away if the virus surge continues.

"Lives are at stake here, make no mistake about it," she said. "But the economy is at stake as well."

Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said that Wednesday's appeal for more individual attention to safety and health guidelines is a "clarion call."

Briefings are usually held on Tuesday and Thursday, but Wednesday's was scheduled after the spike in cases was announced in the morning. It was attended by Shah, Mills and Jeanne Lambrew, commissioner of the state Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the CDC.

Shah said there's a big difference between the current spike and the one in the spring, and that's what makes the new increase concerning. "There are discrete individual cases," he said, rather than most of the cases being from congregate living settings, like nursing home and shelters. The uptick is likely coming from small gatherings in homes or small groups going out to eat and not having masks on, though the CDC has only started investigating.

He said both the number of cases and the geography concern him, and that such community spread could lead to exponential growth of the virus — meaning the increase gets bigger, faster as individuals spread it to more people.

Shah said that there's a narrative that the rise in cases is because of more testing, but he said the level of testing has remained consistent, while the positivity rate has gone up. Maine conducts an average of 449 PCR tests — the one used to determine if someone has the virus — per 100,000 residents. The state's positivity rate is 0.75%, up from 0.5% last week and 0.42% two weeks ago. 

Pressure on individuals, not more restrictions

The trend of the latest cases means the pressure for more restrictions on businesses isn't as great as the pressure on individuals to wear masks, wash their hands frequently, practice physical distancing and avoid large gatherings.

Bars and tasting rooms will still open Monday for the first time since March, despite the increase and the ease of transmission in bars, where people stay for long periods of time and are drinking, so don't wear masks. The indoor gathering rules for other businesses apply to bars and tasting rooms, including limiting capacity.

The rise also comes as the weather is getting colder, but the holiday social and shopping season, including Halloween on Saturday, is getting started. That means more indoor activity, both public and private.

"The rules are there," Mills said. The biggest emphasis is on individual responsibility in following them.

"It's part of everyone's civic responsibility to help take care of everyone in the state," she said. "That’s why we ask everyone to follow the guidelines and follow the rules."

Mills also said the rise in cases is putting stresses on Maine's health care system that can get worse. The stresses can also have ripple effects as far as people being treated for other illnesses, the number of staff available to take care of people in health care centers and hospitals, and more.

Currently the state has 98 critical care beds available out of a total 385. There are 16 COVID-19 patients in Maine hospitals, with seven in intensive care. A week ago, seven people were hospitalized, with none in intensive care.

"While the numbers remain low, they are significant," Shah said.

Of the state's 6,387 cases since March 12, 1,144 have been health care workers.

"When you do get sick, whatever risks you take, we may not have enough healthy medical personnel to take care of you and to take care of those you infect," Mills said.

A screen image of a woman talking, with a sign language interpreter, under the woman it sasy gov janet mills governor of maine
Image / MainePublic screen image
Gov. Janet Mills urges individual responsibility Wednesday as the state's COVID-19 cases increase. The sign language interpreter is Maura Nolin.

'We're doing better than we thought we would'

Mills said that businesses, in general, "have been very cooperative, with very few exceptions."

"They've all been incredibly careful, for the sake of their own employees and staff, and for the sake of their clientele," she said. Because of that, "we're doing better than we thought we would."

She said that keeping that upward trajectory going is one reason for people to take mask-wearing, physically distancing, hand-washing and avoiding large gatherings seriously.

The state is in the fourth stage of reopening, a process that began in March.

Among the restrictions still in place:

  • No more than 100 people at outdoor gatherings;
  • Indoor gatherings can be either 50% of capacity with a cap of 50;
  • Stores are allowed five people per 1,000 square feet.
  • Masks are required in stores with more than 50,000 square feet, but everyone — staff and the public — is supposed to wear masks when unable to remain 6 feet away from other people, which is almost all businesses when indoors.

Mills said that there's no "magic number" that would prompt the state to tighten up business and gathering restrictions, but that state and health officials look at the numbers every day, following trends. She said they also look at sectors and guidelines when considering changes.

"I don’t have answer if anything is going to change in the coming weeks or months or days," she said.

She compared following the health and safety guidelines to rules that protect drivers. "We have rules about driving," Mills said. "You have the right get a license and drive up the road, but you don’t have the license to drive all over the road, because you endanger yourself and other people."

South Dakota governor 'has no reason to brag'

In answer to reporters' questions about several recent political rallies in Maine by President Donald Trump and his surrogates, where there was little social distancing or mask-wearing, Mills said she's reached out to the White House to discuss ways to keep the state safe, but hasn't heard back. Another event is scheduled for today, with Donald Trump Jr. scheduled to visit Greenway Equipment Supply in Bangor.

"This virus doesn’t know and doesn’t care if you're Republican, Democrat, independent or Green," Mills said. State officials "expect compliance, we hope for appliance, or else this thing going to be totally out of control."

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, at a pro-Trump event Wednesday in Bangor, criticized Democrat Mills' handling of the virus in Maine. "This state is suffering under the lockdowns and mandates she’s put down," Noem said. "Our state is thriving."

Mills, when told about Noem's remarks, pointed out that South Dakota, with a population of 900,000, had 989 new cases Tuesday.

"I don’t want to talk politics, but I will say the statistics of South Dakota give her no reason to brag," Mills said. "There's no reason to boast when have an average of 900 new cases a day, and a smaller population than Maine. She's in no position to give us advice."

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