Village Station in Freeport was empty Tuesday, with retail stores shut down. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Gov. Janet Mills announced an accelerated reopening of retail stores and restaurants in 12 of Maine’s 16 counties on Friday, heeding calls for a more regional approach that reflects lower numbers of COVID-19 cases in rural areas.

The shifted timeline is aimed at helping revive economic activity – and jobs – in parts of Maine that have, to date, not experienced the outbreaks or “community transmission” seen in more populated areas of the state. But Mills’ updated plan does not change the prohibitions on social gatherings of more than 10 people and keeps hotels, bars and other key components of Maine’s tourism economy shuttered headed into the busy summer months.

Retail stores as well as fitness centers can reopen on a restricted basis to in-store customers on Monday in 12 counties: Aroostook, Piscataquis, Washington, Hancock, Somerset, Franklin, Oxford, Kennebec, Waldo, Knox, Lincoln and Sagadahoc.

Restaurants in the dozen counties will be allowed to open to dine-in customers starting on May 18 as long as they maintain physical distancing and other guidelines. Remote or backcountry campsites — such as those offered on Maine Public Lands, the Allagash Wilderness Waterway and North Maine Woods — as well as sporting camps will be permitted to open to Maine residents, or to out-of-staters who quarantine for 14 days, on May 18. Commercial campgrounds are not included in the accelerated reopening plan.

But all businesses will have to abide by a strict set of guidelines, and Mills cautioned that future decisions to relax or reimpose restrictions will depend on virus monitoring by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Ultimately, this rural plan is the next step in the gradual restart of our economy as we continue to put the health of Maine people first,” Mills said at the daily news briefing Friday.

Those reopening timelines largely align with those recently announced in New Hampshire by Gov. Chris Sununu, who has been talking with Mills and their counterpart in Vermont about a regional approach to reopening their states’ virus-stricken economies.

Mills’ plan is only a partial step for the 12 counties, however, and does not change the strict closures in place in Maine’s other four counties.

Most retail stores in Cumberland, York, Penobscot and Androscoggin counties will have to remain closed until June 1 as part of the multiphase reopening plan outlined by Mills last week.

Two-thirds of Maine’s 1,374 cases have occurred in York and Cumberland counties. Additionally, the Maine CDC said the four counties are the only areas of the state where it has identified “community transmission,” defined as when there are at least 10 cases and 25 percent didn’t come from a known source or because of travel to infected areas.

“Although there are rural areas in some of those counties, the counties, as a whole, have seen too significant spread,” Mills said.

In order to open, stores in the 12 counties must follow a checklist of health and safety precautions aimed at reducing the risk of transmission of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, which had killed 63 Maine residents and more than 75,000 people nationwide as of Friday.

Those measures include restricting the number of customers inside at any one time, enhanced cleaning and sanitation, and maximizing touch-free practices wherever possible. Allowable customer numbers will be based on the physical footprint of the store similar to the system now applied to supermarkets, big box stores and other retailers that were considered “essential” during the initial versions of Mills’ statewide “stay-at-home” order.

Fitness centers will be allowed to offer outdoor classes to groups of less than 10 or one-on-one personal training sessions indoors starting on Monday.

Similarly, restaurants will have to abide by a list of guidelines in order to open to outdoor dining and limited dine-in on May 18. Those include: spacing tables for dine-in customers at least 6 feet apart, using a reservation-only system to manage flow whenever possible, switching to laminated menus for easier sanitation and shutting down salad bars or other “common food” areas.

“This isn’t going to be easy, but the industry has also weighed in and we have respected their views and come to these accommodations,” Mills said.

Mills has been under pressure to speed up or dramatically alter her multistage reopening plan since unveiling it on April 28. Maine residents, like most people across the nation, have been living under a mandatory “stay-at-home” order for more than a month as public health officials attempt to slow the spread of the disease.

On Thursday, the Maine Department of Labor reported that about 16,100 residents filed for unemployment benefits last week. Since March 15, nearly 125,000 Mainers have applied for unemployment – roughly 18 percent of the state’s workforce – as the coronavirus pandemic continues to take a heavy toll on the state’s economy.

A key factor in further relaxing restrictions was Thursday’s announcement that a testing equipment and supply deal with Westbrook-based Idexx will allow the Maine CDC to triple its testing capacity by the end of next week. The expanded testing, coupled with an expanded track-and-trace program to identify people who may have been exposed to an infected person, is expected to make it easier for the state to monitor and contain the spread of the virus.

“At that time, we will be able to do more testing in different regions for more people,” Mills said. “It’s as simple as that.”

Several business groups cheered the expedited timeline for some businesses in more rural areas.

“We appreciate the Mills administration’s recognition that there are regional differences when it comes to COVID-19, and easing restrictions to speed-up reopening where we can is critical to Maine’s economic recovery,” Dana Connors, president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, said in a statement. “Expanding Maine’s coronavirus testing capacity, made possible by the state’s partnership with IDEXX announced yesterday, is also encouraging. We expect that will help guide where Maine can continue to ramp up reopening safely, in some cases ahead of the original reopening timeline.”

Curtis Picard with the Retail Association of Maine, which represents retail businesses at the State House, said he was pleased that the Mills administration agreed with some of his organization’s recommendations on relaxing restrictions. In a statement to members, Picard noted that so-called “essential” businesses have been operating for nearly two months without outbreaks using practices that can now be replicated at other stores.

But Picard also urged business owners to “take steps beyond the guidelines to make this work.”

“For the retailers that will be allowed to open on Monday in the 12 other Maine counties, we have a message: Our industry needs to do this right,” Picard said. “The safety of your employees and customers is paramount. We will not be able to reopen further or increase customer counts unless we continue to see progress in combating COVID-19, and that requires our industry to make sure the public is protected.”

Mills’ action Friday came as a group of nine Maine businesses filed suit in a bid to force the state to loosen economic restrictions. The lawsuit asks a U.S. District Court to rule that Mills’ executive orders restricting business activity are unconstitutional and to bar her from issuing similar ones in the future.

Even so, Maine has been moving faster to reopen sectors of its economy than all other New England states and was among the first to loosen restrictions on businesses in the northeast.

Maine had the sixth-lowest per capita infection rate among states and the District of Columbia, with a rate of 99 confirmed cases for every 100,000 residents, according to the latest figures from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Vermont’s rate was 145 cases per 100,000 residents as of Thursday, while New Hampshire had a rate of 202 cases per 100,000 residents. Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut, on the other hand, rank just below New York and New Jersey, with rates eight to 10 times higher than Maine’s rate.

Maine continues to see additional cases and deaths from COVID-19, however.

The Maine CDC reported 44 new cases and one death on Friday. To date, there have been 1,374 confirmed or probable cases and 63 deaths from the disease.

After accounting for deaths and the 836 people have have recovered from the disease, Maine CDC was reporting 475 active cases of COVID-19 on Friday – a decrease of six since Thursday.

 

Businesses in the dozen counties that reopen will have to abide by safety and health checklist provided by the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development. While failure could result in the loss of licenses or other sanctions, Mills said that “we don’t live in a police state” and the plan relies heavily on businesses – and customers – following the rules.

She urged customers who observe businesses not following rules or enforcing requirements on other customers not to shop at those businesses and urge others to do the same. Customers can also report business flouting the requirements to the state.

“The biggest sanction, the biggest consequence for violating the order, violating the guidelines, is that a customer, a staff person or the business owner themselves might well fall sick or even die from this virus,” Mills said. “They are public safety, public health guidelines, first and foremost.”

Heather Johnson, commissioner of the Department of Economic and Community Development, said her agency has “a ton of confidence” in businesses so she expects most operators to carefully follow the guidelines.

“In these small towns, particularly, repeat customers are the only way for businesses to stay alive,” Johnson said. “So they feel it is their absolute prerogative to protect their customers and their employees as well.”

This article was updated at 12:40 p.m on Saturday, May 9, 2020, to correct that only remote or backcountry campgrounds and campsites will be permitted to open on May 18, not commercial campgrounds.

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