AUGUSTA — Gov. Janet Mills announced a statewide stay-at-home order starting Thursday, restricting Mainers’ movement and activities as health officials attempt to limit the spread of coronavirus in the state.

Beginning at 12:01 a.m. Thursday, Maine residents will be prohibited from traveling outside their homes for all but “essential personal activities.” Those activities include: grocery shopping, obtaining medical care or medication, providing care to another person or livestock, engaging in outdoor exercise or walking a pet, travels related to child care, or commuting to and from work for an essential job.

The order is slated to last until April 30 but may be shortened or lengthened, depending on the coronavirus situation in the state. Maine had 303 confirmed cases of the COVID-19 disease caused by coronavirus as of Tuesday as well as five deaths, including two new deaths.

Mills said said that while she has been impressed by Mainers’ compliance with earlier restrictions and recommendations, “more action is necessary” to stem the spread of the deadly virus that she bluntly warned will take more lives in Maine. Previous measures include school closures, prohibitions on social gatherings, restrictions on nonessential businesses, and closures of many state parks and beaches.

“These are no ordinary times … but these are times when extraordinary actions are required, so today I am taking the most aggressive action yet,” Mills said during an afternoon news conference to which the media called in remotely.

Mills also ordered all schools closed for classroom-based instruction until May 1. Responding to the influx of non-Maine residents to the state – particularly in coastal areas with a larger number of second homes – Mills ordered anyone entering the state or returning to Maine from other locations to self-quarantine for 14 days.

“For those people who come to Maine, however, my message is clear, you cannot escape the virus by coming here. And while you are here, you are obviously subject to the laws, protocols and orders of the state of Maine,” Mills said. “Our health facilities may soon be overcrowded or overwhelmed. If you get sick or if you are sick, treatment may be scarce or even unavailable to you.”

Maine is one of the last states in New England to impose a stay-at-home order. Last week, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker issued a “stay-at-home advisory” to residents. In the absence of a statewide order, cities and towns such as Portland, South Portland and Brunswick have issued their own stay-at-home orders.

Portland Mayor Kate Snyder praised the statewide mandate.

“Having a statewide stay-at-home order strengthens the order we issued here in Portland last night,” Snyder said in a statement Tuesday, referring to city’s extension of the local order. “As my colleagues and I have stressed, it is critical that we adhere to strict measures now so as to reduce the spread of this virus, and possibly even shorten the amount of time the stay-at-home mandate is required.”

DEATHS, INFECTIONS RISING

Mills announced the stay-at-home order on the same day that the Maine CDC announced two additional deaths from COVID-19: two women in their 80s living in Kennebec and York counties. Both women were hospitalized at the time of their deaths, one of them at MaineGeneral Health’s Alfond Center for Health in Augusta.

Maine’s infection rate is also rising steadily, with the 303 confirmed cases more than double the figures from one week earlier. While health officials have said that trend is consistent with COVID-19 diagnosis rates in other states, they also acknowledge that the number of confirmed cases is just the “tip of the iceberg” because many people are either asymptomatic or have yet to be tested.

“To the people of Maine, we are in the midst of the greatest public health crisis, or one of the greatest, that this world has seen in more than a century,” Mills said. “The virus will continue to sicken people across our state. Our cases will only grow and more people will die. I say this just to be direct and to be honest as I can with you because saving lives will depend on all of us.”

REQUIRED SPACING AND ENFORCEMENT

The revised emergency order issued by the Mills administration on Wednesday also imposes additional spacing and protective measures on “essential” retail businesses, such as grocery stores, hardware stores and pharmacies.

For instance, gas stations or convenience stores must limit the number of customers inside their space to five at a time. Larger businesses the size of chain grocery stores, meanwhile, are directed to only allow up to 75 customers inside at one time while “big box” stores should hold the limit at 100 customers.

Additionally, those larger grocery or big-box stores are required to install protective shields between customers and the check-out clerks “as soon as practicable.”

Someone put a mask on the Maine Lobsterman at an empty Lobsterman Park in Portland. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The order includes language on enforcement, saying it “shall be enforced by law enforcement as necessary and violations are a Class E crime subject to up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.” Other provisions “may also be enforced by government officials who regulate licenses, permits or any other authorization to operate a business or occupy a building.

“It is the Governor’s hope that compliance will be voluntary, and that formal enforcement will not be necessary,” Mills said in a news release.

It is not clear from the order or the release what criteria police would apply if they decide to stop someone and question them.

Asked about enforcement of the stay-at-home order and related requirements, including the self-quarantine order for out-of-state residents, Mills said that “I’m not ordering that we live in a police state.”

TESTING BACKLOG COMING DOWN

During a briefing earlier Tuesday, Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah said his office, in conjunction with a commercial lab, has reduced the backlog of tests awaiting analysis to 600 from 1,300 last week. The remaining tests are for people who are in the lowest risk category, he said, and there is no backlog of high-priority individuals such as hospitalized patients, nursing home residents or health care workers.

Maine CDC also reported that:

57 people have been hospitalized at some point during their sickness with COVID-19.

68 people have recovered and been released from isolation.

90 intensive care unit beds were available statewide out of 190 total.

262 ventilators were available statewide out of 330 total

An additional 89 “alternative” ventilators approved for use by the federal government were also available.

PORTLAND SHELTER CASE

More than half of the cases in Maine – 169 of the 303 – involve Cumberland County residents, while an additional 59 individuals reside in York County. But Shah noted that Kennebec, Androscoggin and Penobscot counties all have more than 10 cases, so CDC staff are investigating whether community transmission is happening there as well.

One of the new cases reported Tuesday was in a person who had “spent some time” at the Oxford Street homeless shelter in Portland. As the number of COVID-19 cases grew in Cumberland County, Portland city officials have been under pressure to take additional steps to protect homeless individuals given the chronic crowding at the Oxford Street shelter, which is the only municipally operated, low-barrier shelter in Maine.

Last week, the University of Southern Maine agreed to allow Sullivan Gym in Portland to be converted into a temporary shelter. Shah noted Tuesday that his agency and other state departments have been working closely with Portland city officials to plan for a potential case among shelter residents.

“We are now taking the plans we have developed and shifting over to the response phase,” Shah said.

 

Beginning Tuesday, he said, hospitals were being asked to report additional information to the CDC on supplies and other resources.

Maine received a new shipment of personal protective equipment from the federal government Monday night, and the CDC will begin distributing that equipment soon, he said. But Shah had warned on Monday that this could be Maine’s last shipment from the national stockpile.

 

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