A group of friends keep a distance from one another Thursday while enjoying the sun at Healy Terrace apartment complex in downtown Lewiston. Susan Houle, left, said residents are taking the coronavirus seriously. “We all use our elbow to hit the door opener and use the hand sanitizer that is provided for us near the door,” she said. “Social distance is the norm,” she said. From left are Houle, Rosemarie Madero, Daniel Boclair, Anthony Gravel, Brent Medrano and Noella Cote. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

LEWISTON — Mayor Mark Cayer said Thursday that issuing a shelter-in-place order might be inevitable in order to force social distancing and prevent a surge of COVID-19 cases overwhelming area hospitals.

But, officials are not quite there yet, he said.

“There’s no doubt there’s going to be community spread at some point in Lewiston,” he said. “We watch for that every single day, and when it’s obvious, we’re really going to have to consider that next step.”

Cayer said he’s hoping that if a shelter-in-place order is imposed, it is a statewide decision, which he believes would eliminate the concern that some municipalities wouldn’t be following the same guidelines, and that community spread could continue.

This week, as officials in Lewiston have watched COVID-19 cases continue to spread throughout Maine, they have been paying close attention to the numbers in Androscoggin County, as well as the behavior of local residents.

Cayer estimated that while the majority of residents are following proper social distancing guidelines, there are still worrying examples of those who are not. He said he and city staff have received a number of recent calls from concerned residents requesting officials do more to prevent groups of people from gathering.

“Our concern is that the small population of folks that aren’t doing their part with social distancing can have a serious impact on community spread,” he said.

On Thursday, groups of people were playing tennis at the courts near Lewiston High School despite the school district closing all of its schools and athletic facilities last week, and posting signs. Superintendent Todd Finn said late Thursday that he had notified high school staff.

Earlier in the week, the city announced it would close the basketball courts and skatepark at Kennedy Park due to large groups of people still gathering there.

On Tuesday, Cayer issued a statement imploring residents to “immediately cease close contact with others.”

“If social distancing does not occur in Lewiston, a ‘shelter in place’ order will be issued,” the statement said. “This order will require individuals to stay at their residence unless seeking necessities such as food or medical assistance. Please help us stop virus transmission. Our families, our community, and our lives depend on it.”

Cayer said in the days since he’s personally seen groups of young adults driving or gathering within the city, “not practicing the 6-foot rule.” He’s also seen lines at local convenience or retail stores, with customers also sharing the same pen, that concern him. But, Gov. Janet Mills’ recent executive order that closed all nonessential businesses should help, he said.

“I’ve had so many residents call and ask for me to shut down the city,” he said. “You can see what’s happening in Portland right now and we don’t want that to happen here.”

The city of Portland announced a shelter-in-place order late Tuesday, which requires all public-facing businesses to close to customers and for residents to stay at home except for essential needs.

Cayer said it has been challenging as an elected official to make decisions that have negative consequences on some, but that the decisions are made with overall public health system in mind.

He said community spread in Lewiston alone could overwhelm both hospitals, let alone cases from surrounding communities.

“My first priority is Lewiston, but we have to keep in mind how our decisions affect the larger region that uses our two medical facilities,” he said.

On Thursday, officials at Central Maine Medical Center said they have proactively created special facilities for COVID-19 patients at the Lewiston hospital in preparation for a possible surge.

CMMC spokeswoman Kate Carlisle said an 18-bed unit that formerly housed same-day surgery services has been converted to a medical specialty unit with “negative-pressure rooms,” which she said is important to prevent respiratory spread of the novel coronavirus.

“We wanted to make sure that we were able to care for any COVID-19 patients while also ensuring the safety and well-being of all of our hospitalized patients and our staff,” said Dr. John Alexander, chief medical officer for Central Maine Healthcare. 

Under the Lewiston city charter, decisions within the emergency declaration are made by Cayer and City Administrator Ed Barrett. Deputy City Administrator Denis D’Auteuil is designated the city’s “emergency manager.”

D’Auteuil said Thursday that officials will continue to watch the case numbers closely and will “re-evaluate as things evolve.”

“Right now we all need to do our part to protect our community and the best thing we can do toward that effort is to follow social distancing guidelines,” he said.


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