People eat outdoors at multiple restaurants on Fore Street in Portland on Thursday, the day Maine lifted many of its COVID-19 restrictions. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

The Mills administration updated its mask rules on Friday to align with new guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that allows those who are fully vaccinated to forgo masks in indoor public settings. The new state rules will go into effect on May 24.

“We welcome this new guidance and we agree – being vaccinated is the best way to protect you and your loved ones from COVID-19,” Gov. Janet Mills said in a statement. “After a review of the new guidance, we are adopting the U.S. CDC’s recommendations, and we continue to strongly urge all Maine people to get their shots.”

Maine also is lifting physical distancing requirements at indoor public settings where people are removing their masks to eat or drink, such as restaurants, bars, congregate living facilities and break rooms. The Mills administration had removed the requirement for outdoor masking in public areas on April 27.

But the administration offered no rules for businesses on whether they should attempt to enforce mask wearing for staff or customers who are not vaccinated.

Maine officials said people who are not yet vaccinated should still wear masks, including children under age 12, who do not yet have an approved vaccine. Federal regulators approved the Pfizer vaccine for ages 12-15 this week. The U.S. CDC is still requiring people to wear masks when taking public transportation, such as airports, planes and buses.

“For people who are not vaccinated, including children too young to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, wearing a mask remains one of the most effective ways of protecting yourself and your family against this highly contagious disease,” Jeanne Lambrew, Maine’s health and human services commissioner, said in a statement. “We thank those who are fully vaccinated for doing their part to protect themselves and their communities, and ask them to consider wearing a mask in public places to give children the example they need to continue wearing one until a vaccine is available for them.”

Maine also will soon begin retiring its COVID-19 prevention checklists and transitioning to guidelines from the U.S. CDC. Maine Department of Education guidelines for schools – including masking and distancing – remain in effect, at least for now. Lambrew said they are awaiting updated recommendations from the federal government regarding schools, and will examine those when they are revised to see what Maine will do about pandemic restrictions and schools.

It will be up to businesses to decide how to proceed regarding masks at their locations, both for employees and customers. During a briefing with reporters on Friday, both Lambrew and Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah indicated that the state will not issue explicit rules for businesses on how to attempt to enforce the mask requirement for those who are not fully vaccinated.

“We will leave that to the businesses,” Lambrew said, adding that she expects Mills to issue an updated executive order in the coming days that might touch on enforcement. Lambrew said giving businesses and customers 10 days of warning before the new masking policies take effect also will help.

“This allows businesses time to adjust their protocols,” she said. “It also allows those people who have not yet been vaccinated the time to at least receive their first shot prior to May 24.”

But Lambrew said the COVID-19 situation has changed dramatically since the state issued its initial face-covering mandate, saying “we are on the side of this pandemic that is toward the end and not toward the beginning.”

“We are to a point where our public health protocols are shifting as well as our enforcement strategies,” she said.

Shah acknowledged that some people – including some in his own family – have expressed concerns about not wearing masks in public, indoor settings even though they are fully vaccinated. For his part, Shah said he will stop wearing a mask on May 24 in those settings because the overwhelming science tells him it is safe to do so.

“This change does not say that if you are fully vaccinated you can’t wear a mask,” Shah said. “I think we have to recognize that everyone will move at their own pace. There will be some people who are fully vaccinated who will still wear a mask for their own reason.”

On Thursday, Mills announced that, beginning May 24, there will no longer be any capacity limits or physical distancing requirements outdoors or in most indoor settings.

“These changes are aligned with the latest science and they make sense for Maine at this stage, I think, given the percentage of our population that has been vaccinated,” Mills said Thursday. “I want to be clear: We are still living through a pandemic and these changes don’t come without some risk, especially for those who remain unvaccinated.”

Several restaurants in Greater Portland reached Thursday and Friday said that despite the changes in capacity limits, they don’t have enough employees to handle additional tables. Others said they hadn’t yet decided what changes they might make.

Ryan Hickman, chef and owner of The Knotted Apron on Woodford Street in Portland, said Friday that he’d try to gauge the comfort level of the general public before deciding how many tables to add inside his restaurant, which currently seats 15-20 but can hold up to 40 people, along with 40 more on a newly expanded patio. Having both full would be more than his small kitchen could handle, he said.

When restrictions lift, he might add one more table inside and see how it goes, then add another a couple weeks later.

“That will be something that we’ll kind of feel out as we move forward,” he said.

Ethan Sturm, operations manager for Rivalries, which has sports pubs in Portland and Falmouth, said they hadn’t decided yet whether they would change seating arrangements when the indoor capacity limit lifts. Currently, he said, the Falmouth location has about 16 tables in its dining room, spaced 6 feet apart, and eight seats at its bar, in groups of two with 6 feet between them.

“We’ll really assess the situation over the next couple weeks,” he said.

The state’s changes were announced at the same time that the U.S. CDC released its new recommendations allowing vaccinated people to not be masked in indoor public places. During a news briefing Thursday, Mills said state officials needed more time to determine how the state would respond to the new federal masking rules. Less than 24 hours later, her administration aligned its mask rules with federal guidelines, starting May 24.

State health officials reported 305 new cases of COVID-19 and one additional death on Friday.

The number of new cases of the viral disease continues to trend downward in Maine and across much of the country as the vaccination rate slowly but steadily climbs.

With Friday’s 305 new cases, Maine’s seven-day average of daily stood at 270, compared to 328 one week earlier and a springtime peak of more than 470 cases reported daily roughly one month ago. Much of the spring surge in cases has occurred among unvaccinated people under 40.

Androscoggin County continues to lead the state with per-capita case counts, with a seven-day average of four cases per 10,000 population, double the state average.

The positivity rate – the percent of COVID-19 tests returned positive – has also slowly and steadily declined, another sign that the pandemic is easing. Maine’s positivity rate was 2.26 on Friday, down from 2.6 two weeks ago.

There have been 799 deaths linked to COVID-19 since the coronavirus was first detected in Maine in March 2020. To date, the Maine CDC has tracked 65,348 confirmed or probable cases of COVID-19 in the state. Statewide, 118 people were hospitalized with the disease Friday, including 44 in critical care beds.

Maine and other New England states continue to have the highest vaccination rates in the country, although the pace of inoculations has slowed considerably in recent weeks.

Just shy of 50 percent of Maine’s population of 1.3 million residents had received at least one shot of vaccine as of Thursday evening and 46.2 percent had received final doses of vaccine. Those figures climb to 56.1 percent and 52.5 percent, respectively, when calculated only among residents 12 or older who are currently eligible for vaccination.

Maine is first in the nation in full vaccination rates, followed by Connecticut, Vermont, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, according to tracking by Bloomberg. Data from the U.S. CDC, meanwhile, show that Maine had the sixth-highest percentage, at 70.4 percent, of the 18-and-older population that had received at least one shot, with Vermont leading the country at 76 percent.

Vaccine databases use different methods of calculating rates, so state rankings can vary. In general, however, New England states have the highest in the nation.

Mills cited Maine surpassing 70 percent for adult vaccinations on Thursday when announcing that the state would take additional steps later this month to relax COVID-19 restrictions. President Biden had set a July 4 goal of getting at least one COVID-19 vaccine does into the arms of 70 percent of American adults, and Mills said Maine was “reaching this goal 53 days early.”

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