A sign advises people to keep their distance at Old Orchard Beach. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

State health officials reported 34 new cases of the coronavirus Thursday, but the number of deaths among individuals with COVID-19 held steady for a third straight day as Maine enters a holiday weekend that will kick the tourism season – and the threat of virus transmission – into a higher gear.

The 34 cases is just below the average of 37 additional cases reported daily during the past week, but is above the average of 27 cases reported for the week ending June 25. But Maine has yet to see the large spikes playing out in many southern and western states, despite increased testing.

All told, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention has reported 3,328 cases of the COVID-19 disease caused by the coronavirus. That figure includes 2,951 tests that were confirmed through molecular testing and 377 “probable” cases among individuals who were exposed to another infected person or who tested positive during an antibody test.

There have been 105 deaths in Maine among people diagnosed with COVID-19.

Maine CDC is tracking 525 active cases – an increase of seven from Wednesday – after subtracting the 105 deaths and the 2,698 people who have recovered. Maine has averaged 498 active cases daily for the week ending Thursday, compared to an average of 457 active cases for the seven-period ending June 25.

Hospitalizations ticked up from 29 to 30 from Wednesday to Thursday while the number of patients with COVID-19 in critical condition also increased by one to nine. Three of those patients were connected to ventilators to support their breathing.

Hospitalization rates and death trends are key metrics for tracking the progress of the virus and efforts to contain transmission. Intensive care beds and ventilators are also critical tools closely tracked by epidemiologists and as of Thursday, Maine hospitals had 148 critical care beds and 252 ventilators available for use.

On Wednesday, Gov. Janet Mills announced that her administration was removing the testing or quarantine requirement for visitors to Maine from New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. Mills said the change, which is aimed at helping stimulate Maine’s stifled summer tourism economy, was prompted by the fact that the three states have lower positive rates for the coronavirus than Maine and downward trends in prevalence rates.

Residents of Vermont and New Hampshire were already exempt from the 14-day quarantine or testing requirements in order to visit Maine, but the requirements still apply to other states, including Massachusetts and Rhode Island, because their epidemiological metrics were not quite as good, Mills said.

Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker was asked at a news conference Thursday morning why the quarantine requirement had not been removed for visitors from his state after Mills’ announcement.

“I don’t know the answer to that question, but I’m going to call the governor of Maine today, and I’m going to ask her, and see what she says,” Baker said. As of July 1, Massachusetts is allowing Mainers into the state without quarantine, but Maine has not made the same exemption.

In a briefing Wednesday, Mills and Shah were asked the same question. Shah cited a higher rate of cases in Massachusetts as the reason for the state’s exclusion from the list.

The director of communications for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, Jackie Farwell, said that the state’s positivity rate for the week of June 23-30 was 2.4 percent, which is higher than the 1.78 percent that Maine reported Thursday.

“The underlying epidemiological rationale is that if the average resident (of another state) is generally as safe as a Maine resident, then by coming to Maine they do not bring an increased risk of COVID-19,” Farwell said.

Mill’s press secretary, Lindsay Crete, did not respond directly about whether the two governors had spoken as of Thursday evening.

Updated figures from the Maine Center for Disease Control released late Thursday on how many nonresidents have tested positive for the virus in Maine show a near quadrupling in the pace of new cases in the last 11 days of June compared to the previous period.

In one instance, more than a half-dozen out-of-state residents who attended a private wedding on an island in Castine subsequently tested positive for the disease.

Mills is also increasing the pressure on businesses to enforce the state’s face-covering requirement.

Mills said Wednesday that she plans to issue an executive order requiring many larger retail stores, lodging establishments, restaurants, outdoor bars and tasting rooms to enforce the state’s mandate to wear masks or cloth face coverings.

The enforcement requirement will be applied to those businesses in all of Maine’s coastal counties except Washington County as well as in Bangor, Brewer, Lewiston and Auburn.

The change comes amid a growing body of research showing that cloth face coverings or masks can significantly reduce the spread of the virus, which is largely transmitted through respiratory droplets. While Maine already requires face coverings inside stores or other public spaces where physical distancing is not possible, compliance varies widely and few stores appear to rigidly enforce it.

Mills compared the enforcement provision to the common “No shirt, no shoes, no service” policy that some businesses have posted on their doors, suggesting they can simply amend their signs to add face coverings to the list. Individuals with health conditions that could be exacerbated by having to wear a cloth face covering or mask would continue to be exempt from the requirement.

“Especially seeing the dangerous trends in southern and southwestern states after they lifted restrictions dramatically, we have to take this virus seriously, and we must continue to protect one another,” Mills said Wednesday during a media briefing.

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine CDC, tweeted on Thursday that the “positivity rate” (which reflects the percent of tests that come back as positive) for the roughly 2,300 molecular tests during the previous 24-hour period was 1.78 percent. The cumulative rate for all tests to date stood at 3.78 percent.

Shah also noted that, as in other states, more young people are being diagnosed with COVID-19. In the early weeks of the pandemic, the median age in Maine was 57 but it has since fallen to 47.

“This shift was expected as younger individuals resume economic and social activity,” Shah said on Twitter. “It is a reminder that younger folks can get #COVIDー19. It’s also a good reason to wear a face covering if attending any sort of gathering this #IndependenceDay weekend. Please, stay safe, #Maine.”

The disease continues to disproportionately affect health care workers and Black or African American Mainers. Maine CDC figures show that Black or African American residents account for 27 percent of COVID-19 cases among the 2,940 individuals whose race is known, despite representing just 1.4 percent of the state’s population. That gap has led to Maine having the largest racial disparity in the nation.

Health care workers, meanwhile, represent 815 of the state’s 3,328 cases. Many minority workers in Maine, including members of the state’s growing immigrant communities, work in health care or other industries with higher risks of infection.

Also on Thursday, the Maine Department of Corrections announced that COVID-19 tests performed on clients and staff at the Long Creek Youth Development Center came back negative. Universal testing was conducted at the South Portland facility earlier this week after a client had tested positive. In all, test results for all 35 clients and 146 employees were negative, the department said. Test results for six staff members are still pending.

Staff Writer Reuben Schafir contributed to this report.

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