State health officials reported one additional coronavirus death as well as new outbreaks in Portland and Bangor on Wednesday, highlighting the challenges facing the Mills administration as it prepares to relax some restrictions on businesses this week.

The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention said the outbreaks included eight cases at the Tyson Foods meat processing plant in Portland and 20 cases at Bangor’s Hope House Health and Living Center, which includes a homeless shelter. The 20 Hope House cases were not included in the 1,056 confirmed cases the agency reported earlier Wednesday in its daily coronavirus update.

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine CDC, said his agency is working with the facilities to help test everyone at Hope House and the Tyson Foods plant.

At Tyson Foods, which is the largest outbreak in Maine to date outside of a health care or long-term care business, the company is discussing potentially idling the plant but still having employees come in for testing, Shah said. He described those discussions as “very collaborative.”

“If we close down the facility and no employees are showing up, it makes it harder to do the first goal, which is to test everybody,” Shah said at an afternoon news briefing. “So there is a bit of a trade-off there. So we are working with the facility in order to find a way to idle the plant so that workers can still show up, maybe not do the job that they would previously do but something else, and still have an opportunity to discharge our first goal, which is to get everyone tested.”

Earlier Wednesday, the Maine CDC released new figures showing a decline in active cases as the number of people recovering from the COVID-19 disease outpaced new, confirmed infections.

The agency reported 16 additional confirmed COVID-19 cases, raising the statewide total to 1,056, and said a woman in her 70s from Cumberland County was the 52nd resident to die from the disease.

The confirmed cases only show a portion of COVID-19’s presence in Maine because of limited testing. But the figures released earlier Wednesday – before the 20 Hope House cases were reported – suggested that the virus curve may be flattening.

The number of active COVID-19 cases – calculated by deducting the 52 deaths and 615 recovered individuals from total cases to date – fell below 400 on Wednesday for the first time since April 12. Maine CDC reported 389 active cases as of early Wednesday morning. That’s a decline from the peak of 446 active cases on April 17.

Thirty-two people were hospitalized, down one from Tuesday, while the number of patients in critical care beds or connected to respiratory ventilators held steady at 17 and seven, respectively. Roughly one quarter of the total cases – 247 individuals – are among health care workers.

Maine had a total of 330 critical care beds in its hospitals Wednesday, of which 171 were available, and a total of 314 ventilators, of which 299 were available. In addition, there were 397 alternative ventilators available.

Such data will be key to the timing of Gov. Janet Mills’ plan to begin a phased reopening of Maine’s partially shuttered economy. Many sectors of Maine’s tourism industry will likely remain largely shut down, at least to out-of-state visitors, well into the summer, however.

Under stage 1 of the plan, scheduled to begin Friday, hair salons, car dealerships, some state parks, pet groomers and other select business classes will be allowed to resume serving customers on-site as long as they commit to following strict safety protocols. Hospitals, dental offices and other health care facilities will be allowed to resume offering elective surgeries and other procedures.

Maine residents will be allowed to use these services as well as engage in other essential activities already allowed, including grocery shopping, seeking health care or pharmaceuticals, caring for a family member or livestock, exercising outdoors, or commuting to an essential job. But the statewide stay-at-home order restricting other activities will be extended from Thursday to May 31.

If the virus continues on a downward trajectory in Maine, Mills’ plan calls for relaxing restrictions on hotels, restaurants, fitness centers and campgrounds on June 1, but only for Maine residents or out-of-state visitors who have met a 14-day quarantine requirement. Additional businesses would open in July or August.

The multi-stage plan has received mixed reviews from business leaders, but has also caused confusion in the business community. Hotels, campgrounds, charter boats, bars and other important cogs in Maine’s multi-billion dollar tourism industry may miss much of the summer season if a 14-day quarantine is still required in July and August for out-of-state visitors.

Heather Johnson, commissioner of the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development, said Wednesday during the afternoon briefing with Shah that the administration is hoping to find alternatives to the 14-day quarantine in order to allow out-of-state visitors earlier.

“It’s a long time between now and July 1st,” Johnson said. “We are trying to find multiple options for tourism businesses and people who want to come to Maine to find a way to do that. Quarantine is a last-case choice. We are actively looking at some other choices that we are not ready to talk through yet.”

Johnson said the Mills administration is willing to add businesses to the “open” list – beyond the broad categories outlined in Tuesday’s announcement – as long as they can show they can do so safely. The department is also looking at whether additional businesses could open in some areas earlier than others, dependent on factors such as population density and infection rates.

“We do believe that there is an opportunity to pull forward some of the stages for some of our rural communities,” Johnson said.

On Wednesday evening, Mills’ office released the executive order formally extending Maine’s “stay-at-home” order through May 31 while allowing residents to travel outside of their homes to the expanded list of businesses. The order also requires Mainers to wear cloth face coverings – consistent with recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – in public spaces where physical distancing is not possible.

The administration defined those areas as: grocery stores, retail stores, pharmacies and health care facilities; outdoor spaces such as playgrounds, busy parking lots and other areas such as lines for take-out service; and public transportation including buses, ferries, trains, taxis, ride-sharing services or semi-enclosed transit stop or waiting areas.

“As our state begins to ease some restrictions as part of the plan to gradually and safely restart the economy, it is important for Maine people to also take individual precautions to prevent the spread of the virus,” Mills said in a statement. “Ultimately, this is about protecting our communities. By wearing a cloth face covering, you are taking an important step in protecting others, and when others wear them, they are taking an important step in protecting you.”

Mills also said the gradual reopening of the economy – far too gradual, for some critics – is because “Maine appears to be flattening the curve against this pandemic.”

Republican leaders in the Maine Legislature were among the critics of the Mills administration plan, saying statistical data on the virus in Maine supports allowing more businesses to open and employees to return to work if their health is protected.

The lawmakers – Sens. Dana Dow of Waldoboro and Jeff Timberlake of Turner, and Reps. Kathleen Dillingham of Oxford and Trey Stewart of Presque Isle – also questioned why the plan would allow 100 people to line up outside of a “big box” store but requires churchgoers to participate in religious services from their vehicles.

“This is not government for the people, by the people, but rather a government that believes their perspective knows what is best for all, despite the mounting evidence that opening up is appropriate,” read a joint news release from the four Republicans. “To be clear, we want a focus on safety and an approach that is measured to ensure our most at risk citizens continue to be protected. That approach also needs to account for the mental, social and economic well-being of all of Maine’s citizens.”

But while the active case numbers appear to be trending downward, Maine CDC continues to track several deadly outbreaks at nursing homes and other long-term care facilities.

To date, the agency has documented 151 cases among residents of long-term or congregate care facilities along with 81 staff members. The 29 deaths among long-term care facility residents comprise more than half of all deaths in Maine.

The largest outbreaks have occurred at the Augusta Center for Health and Rehabilitation, the Maine Veterans’ Home in Scarborough and the Tall Pines nursing home in Belfast. Smaller outbreaks are being tracked at Falmouth By the Sea, The Cedars in Portland and Edgewood in Farmington.

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