Bars are still scheduled to reopen in Maine on Monday despite a record rise in new COVID-19 cases in recent days, but Gov. Janet Mills is considering pushing that back and perhaps tightening other restrictions as well, her office said late Friday afternoon.

“An announcement regarding actions to protect the health and safety of Maine people is likely this weekend,” Mills’ spokeswoman, Lindsay Crete, said in a statement to the Press Herald.

Maine tracked 103 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday, the highest daily total since the pandemic began. Cases have been rising steadily over the last week – the seven-day average is now 67.9, which also is a record. There hasn’t been a COVID-19-related death since Oct. 17, but hospitalizations have been creeping up and deaths often lag behind cases.

At a news briefing Wednesday, Mills pleaded with Mainers to do their part to combat the spread but stopped short of saying she plans to impose more restrictions or delay the reopening of bars. She said transmission appears to be happening more at private gatherings, although there have been plenty of public outbreaks, including at churches and, as reported Thursday, at Pat’s Pizza in Portland.

“It’s not about my issuing an order today,” she said. “It’s about everybody using common sense and getting things under control.”

On Friday, Crete said Mills is “deeply concerned” about rising case numbers in Maine and elsewhere and could be changing her mind.

A staff member cleans the windows of The Snug, a bar in Portland’s East End, on Friday. Signs letting customers know about the bar’s reopening hang in the window. Bars in Maine, closed throughout the pandemic, are scheduled to reopen Monday but record numbers of COVID-19 cases could change that. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographe

“She is considering changes to indoor gathering limits, the list of states currently exempt from quarantine and testing requirements; the reopening of bars, tasting rooms and distilleries, and additional support for adherence to public health requirements,” Crete said. “Like most Maine families, Governor Mills is very apprehensive about the spread of this deadly virus as we face colder weather and holidays that generally encourage gatherings of all sorts. Unfortunately, if we do not each take aggressive actions, this virus will be the uninvited guest to our family dinners and social gatherings.”

The Snug, at the foot of Munjoy Hill in Portland, has been closed since March.

The pub, which has virtually no outdoor seating, has been posting a series of original cartoons since June lampooning the state’s decisions about which businesses are able to open (restaurants and gyms) and which are not (bars). And several of the cartoons take aim at Heather Sanborn, a state senator and owner of Rising Tide Brewing Co., and craft breweries in general, which have been going strong all summer.

“I am not a mega tasting room running spring break-esque tailgate parties every night of the week,” Snug owner Margaret Lyons said in an email Friday night. “I’m a small neighborhood pub that is custom made for social distancing with high-walled booths and even higher ceilings.”

Lyons said she was planning to open on Tuesday. To prepare, she removed half of her seating, ordered plexiglass for the bar, installed sanitation stations and set-up QR codes to collect people’s contact information to help contact tracers in the event of an outbreak.

Lyons said she and her staff of three have been working hard – mentally and physically – to get the place into shape and put up signs to inform customers about the rules. She’s stocked up on masks, gloves, shields and disinfectants. And she waited until the last possible minute to stock up on inventory, which she said arrived Friday afternoon.

To have the governor’s office signal a change in her reopening plan at the last minute is “devastating,” though not unexpected, she said. Not being able to reopen could force her to repay her Paycheck Protection Program loan, she said.

“Honestly, I’m at my breaking point. I have done everything. Everything,” Lyons said. “We are ready. My bar is safe. … We are all barely hanging on. If I could have a word with the governor, I would beg her to just let me open.”

Back in May, Mills pushed back the reopening of restaurants for indoor dining in some counties where the virus was most prevalent. That decision drew criticism because it was made just days before some had planned to open, but the governor hasn’t been shy about prioritizing public health.

Outbreaks have been linked to bars in several states that reopened establishments before Maine, and the country’s top infectious disease specialist, Dr. Anthony Fauci, has warned that bars can be dangerous spreading sites.

According to a report by National Public Radio in August, Louisiana rolled back its limited opening of bars after 400 people had caught the coronavirus just from interactions at those businesses. Texas and Arizona also closed down when infections skyrocketed. In Michigan, public health authorities have traced close to 200 cases to a pub in East Lansing.

Robert Horsburgh, a professor of epidemiology at Boston University, said Friday he understands the business reasons for wanting bars to reopen, but said it’s risky.

“I love to go to the bar and have a beer, but I won’t be going,” he said. “I think it’s risky and I don’t think it makes sense from a public health point of view.”

Since the pandemic reached Maine, Mills’ administration has focused more on voluntary compliance of COVID-19 guidelines, but also has made it clear it’s willing to enforce those guidelines when necessary. Just this week, state officials warned a Bangor business that planned to host a Trump campaign event, sending a letter that said, “the state would take all reasonable and practicable actions to protect the health and safety of Maine people” if guidelines are not followed. The business ended up backing out and the event was moved.

Bars, which are among the businesses in Maine that have been shuttered longest, have been scheduled to open Nov. 2 as part of Phase Four of Mills’ reopening plan. Under that plan, capacity is limited to 50 percent or 100 people, whichever is fewer people.

The establishments will be expected to enforce rules that will make the bar experience more like going to a restaurant. Customers are expected to sit at their own table – maximum of eight people – and only get up to use the restroom or when entering and leaving the bar or restaurant. When not seated, customers will be expected to wear masks. Employees will be required to wear masks at all times.

In some states, bar owners have filed lawsuits challenging restrictions, but courts have sided with public health concerns.

“This idea that the epidemic can be stopped by voluntary action, that’s just not true,” Horsburgh said. “The government needs to set rules and help people navigate this.”

Bars and restaurants have undoubtedly been among the businesses hardest hit. Many restaurants shifted to curbside service early on to earn back at least some of the revenue lost. Once the weather improved, outdoor dining helped. Bars haven’t been able to do either.

This month, bar owners told the Press Herald that they were eagerly awaiting the chance to open their doors and said they were confident that their safeguards would protect employees and customers.

But that was before cases started becoming more widespread.

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, warned Friday that “the surge is here.”

“Take action now,” he wrote on Twitter. “For your sake, and for the sake of your family and community, wear a mask and stay apart. This is serious.”

Staff Writer Randy Billings contributed to this story. 

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