It’s officially June in Maine, which means sunshine, s’mores, camp chairs – and coronavirus.

As state-mandated restrictions are gradually lifted, many Mainers are eager to resume activities that were part of normal life before COVID-19. But the daily COVID-19 case counts and deaths show that risks remain, despite the fact that beaches, businesses and your neighbor’s pool are opening up.

“We did flatten the curve,” says Dr. Meghan May, an infectious disease professor at University of New England College of Medicine in Biddeford, “but that doesn’t necessarily mean that everything is safe.”

May and other experts say the ongoing risks, even as the state reopens, should be at the top of Mainers’ minds as they decide whether to venture out for, say, a bite to eat in one of the 13 counties where dine-in service is permitted or to buy a gift for a graduating senior.

Dr. Dora Anne Mills, chief health improvement officer at MaineHealth and a former director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, says older Mainers and younger people with health conditions that are not well-controlled should be especially wary.

“They really should not be venturing out or they should be very cautious when they are venturing out,” says Mills, the sister of Gov. Janet Mills.

Here are some things to look for to help you stay safe in different venues around Maine:

Retail stores

If you live in Cumberland, York, Androscoggin and Penobscot counties, you’ll be able to visit retail stores that had been closed until Monday because of higher case numbers, even as stores in 12 more rural counties were opened.

Before heading to your favorite shop to scratch that long-suppressed shopping itch, however, it would be a good idea to verify that the place is open for business.

“If our earlier experience is any indicator, some will open on June 1 and some will wait a few days to see how things play out,” says Curtis Picard, executive director of the Retail Association of Maine.

The rules for safety are simple: Wear a face covering. Keep your distance. Only touch what you plan to buy. Be respectful of employees and other shoppers. Reusable bags are now unusable, so it’s officially OK to forget them back in the car.

Pay with plastic or, if you must use cash, don’t lick your fingers when counting dollars (which is gross even when there’s not a pandemic).

Other suggestions: Carry hand sanitizer to use before and after entering a store. Don’t browse: Go in with a purpose and get out promptly.

Your favorite clothing store may be open but you might not be able to try anything on because fitting rooms must remain closed. And check the store’s return policy before buying those jeans that might or might not fit because the state’s official guidance says retailers should “consider suspending or modifying return and exchange policies.”

Those “tester” bottles of smelly lotions or sampling stations of edibles? They’re likely gone, or they should be.

Before you enter a typically high-traffic shop, make sure there’s someone outside keeping track of customer numbers. And be prepared to wait – while distancing, of course. Smaller shops (less than 7,500 square feet) which will only be allowed to serve five customers at a time.

“If I walked into a store and saw people crowded together who didn’t look like they were from the same household or were not socially distancing or wearing masks, I would turn around,” said Mills, at MaineHealth. “We know … this is a disease that is easily transmissible.”

Restaurants

Even in parts of Maine where community transmission is not believed to be happening, indoor restaurant dining is a higher-risk activity than outdoor dining because of air circulation. Safer still, public health officials say, is supporting local restaurants through takeout or curbside service.

“It’s summer in Maine: why would you eat indoors?” ask Dr. Amy Madden, a family medicine and geriatrics physician in Belgrade. “Get your takeout and go eat it somewhere.”

If you’re really craving the full restaurant experience, health experts say it important to take steps to protect yourself.

First off, are waiters, bartenders or the McDonald’s and Dunkin’ drive-thru staffers wearing masks? They should be. Gloves aren’t required under the state’s rules, but good hand hygiene is, particularly if waiters are tending to multiple tables.

Other things to keep an eye on from the state’s “checklist” for restaurants: Tables set at least 6 feet apart, staffers disinfecting tables after each customer, laminated menus, disposable napkins, single-serve condiments, frequently cleaned bathrooms, and hand sanitizer readily available to both staff and patrons.

Ultimately, it’s a personal call – and one that many Mainers are carefully weighing, based on anecdotal evidence in the 12 rural counties with dine-in service.

“Assume you’d be exposed and then think about what is the worst thing that can happen from that?” said May, the UNE infectious disease professor. “If you’re comfortable with that, then that’s fine and that’s your decision. But if you’re not comfortable with that, then don’t go to a restaurant.”

State-owned beaches

Beach blankets, umbrellas and coolers are once again allowed on many southern Maine beaches as long as beachgoers keep their distance from each other and follow other rules. Popham, Crescent, Scarborough and seven other coastal state parks or historic sites reopened Monday after being closed for months.

If you go to a state beach, however, be prepared for fewer parking spots and bathroom stalls as park managers attempt to reduce crowding.

On the flip side, you’ll likely have more space to roll out that beach blanket. But don’t count on grabbing a cone or soda from beach vendors because they won’t be there, at least initially.

Experts say beaches are safe as long as people are spacing out, practicing good hygiene (think sanitizer and soap) and not engaging in other close-contact behaviors known to happen on beaches – either athletic or amorous – that could result in picking up the virus.

Research is ongoing about how long the specific strain of coronavirus that causes COVID-19 can survive in water, although the dilution factor makes transmission less likely. Saltwater is also inherently less hospitable to such viruses. All the same, public health sources say beachgoers should still keep their distance from others in the water.

It’s all of those non-porous surfaces – restroom door handles, faucet knobs, ramp guardrails, bench seats, vending machine buttons – that are more likely to harbor germs that have not yet succumbed to the effects of sunshine or the elements. For that reason, you should behave on the beach just like they would in any other public setting: wash your hands or sanitize after touching anything, and avoid touching your face.

How the rest of the summer goes depends, in large part, on how closely beachgoers follow the rules.

“We don’t want to have to close down again,” says Andy Cutko, director of the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands. “We encourage people to be respectful of our staff and respectful of each other.”

Libraries

There’s good news for book worms who have even burned through their stacks of “someday” books gathering dust on shelves: Libraries are gradually reopening in many towns.

Don’t expect to spend hours perusing the stacks, paging through the Sunday Times or bringing the little ones to story time any time soon, however.

“It is going to be quite some time before we start our programming again,” says Jennifer Alvino, library director at Windham Public Library and president of the Maine Library Association. She says many libraries will start offering curbside service this week, if they aren’t already and then gradually reopen their buildings once they have other protections in place.

Follow the same rules in libraries as in other places – wear a face covering, keep a 6-foot buffer. Guidelines from the Maine Library Association and state also recommend limiting your visit to 30 minutes, bringing minimal items inside and keeping your book touching to a minimum.

Look for the one-way traffic flow system, adopted in some libraries, to minimize those awkward, “How do we avoid each other?” moments in narrow book aisles.

And call ahead if you’re hoping to hop onto a public-access computers – some libraries are removing them because of the transmission risk, along with newspapers and other communal items.

A good feature, offered at Windham’s library, is a plexiglass barrier at customer service stations. They are also asking patrons who pick up an item but choose not to take it home to place it on special tables so they can be collected and quarantined.

Guidance from the Maine Library Association and state recommends quarantining items from between 72 hours and seven days.

But it’s not a requirement, so ask your local library about their quarantine policy for returned materials.

Campgrounds

Camping is a fairly safe activity, as long as you’re doing it right. The outdoor air, breezes and sunlight help reduce the risk of transmission especially if campers are physically spaced out – which is the point of camping, no?

But here are a few things to watch for based on the state’s safety “checklist” for campgrounds and other sources.

First off, campgrounds shouldn’t allow walk-in rentals. Reservations should be done in advance either online or on the phone, preferably paid for ahead of time. And the state recommends camper check-in occur outside, by phone or at the campsite.

Campground employees should be wearing face coverings and practicing good hygiene when dealing with customers. Same goes for staffers cruising around in golf carts or those utility vehicles commonly found at campgrounds these days: if two or more people are onboard (and they’re not household members), their faces should be covered.

No playgrounds, vending machines, spas or hot tubs at this time. Pools can be open but, if they’re indoor, swimming should be restricted to single swimming lanes rather than your typical free-for-all. And campground staff should be frequently disinfecting railings, ladders, diving boards and other “high-touch” areas in addition to keeping the pool water chock full of chlorine.

Canoe, kayak and bike rentals are allowed as long as they are being disinfected after each use. So ask before you rent and, to be safe, perhaps give that kayak and, more importantly, the paddles a wipe-down with your own disinfectant.

Restrooms, bath houses and communal dining areas are more complicated and are a major reason why campgrounds were slower to reopen than remote campsites without such luxuries. They’re all allowed but employees should, per the state, “increase routine cleaning and disinfection procedures with emphasis on frequently touched surfaces (such as door handles, counters, light switches, toilets, etc. and including communal buildings).”

And this should go without saying, but … if you’re camping with other households, get your own campsites. And don’t share s’mores sticks.

Neighborhood BBQ and other outings

Inspired by summer’s return and eager to show off their new COVID-era outdoor pizza oven, neighbors have invited folks from the block to their backyard for some socially distanced food and conversation.

Should you go?

Madden, the Belgrade physician, said you should “look at the type of setting” and find out more about the gathering.

A cookout with six people where everyone brings their own food and takes other precautions is probably OK. But “venturing into settings where things may be less controlled” could be riskier, especially for older residents, individuals with health problems or people who live with others that fall into those categories.

May, the UNE professor, said a cookout with a neighboring family that you know has been quarantining for weeks is likely safe as long as everyone follows the usual distancing protocols. But if there will be strangers there, or if the neighbors are also hosting friends or family from elsewhere in their home, then that’s a different scenario.

And a barbecue of, say, 50 people gets even riskier.

“Each additional guest you bring to an outdoor barbecue, it’s not just one person – it is exponential,” May said.

There are some safer ways to throw or attend such an event:

Make it BYOE – Bring Your Own Everything. Everyone arrives with their own food, drinks, cups, condiments, utensils, camp chairs, sunscreen, etc. … And no one has to share.

It’s OK socially to use disposable plates and utensils these days, even if it still doesn’t feel right environmentally. Also, limit the gathering to just one other household, if possible, and remember to maintain that safe but still-friendly distance.

Health officials also urge folks to limit alcohol consumption to avoid some of the COVID-unsafe displays of affection (or competition) that can happen with lower inhibitions.


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