Bicyclists pedal along Shore Road in Ogunquit, where a sign in the middle of the street Wednesday encouraged people to wear masks. Staff Photo by Gregory Rec

Gov. Janet Mills issued an executive order on Friday requiring Maine businesses accessible to the public to post signs by June 5 alerting customers that wearing masks in indoor public places is mandatory during the COVID-19 pandemic. She also authorized businesses to refuse service or entry to customers who aren’t wearing masks.

The order, which came on a day when the state reported 37 new COVID-19 cases and one more death, also reaffirmed the reopening of more business and social activities on Monday. Retail stores, campgrounds and state parks can open and, in three of Maine’s larger counties, restaurants that offer outdoor seating. The maximum size of public gatherings also will increase, from 10 people to 50.

Mills said in a statement that despite some relaxing of guidelines, people should stay home when possible and avoid crowds, especially indoors, where the risk of transmission is greater.

“If and when you do go out, I urge you to stay local and shop local, to stay at least 6 feet apart from others, to wear a face covering, and, as always, to wash your hands and practice good hygiene. Staying vigilant will save lives and allow us to safely reopen our economy,” Mills said in a written statement.

The distinction between “essential” and “nonessential” businesses has been eliminated, and many businesses can reopen if they follow state guidelines.

Maine is slated to further reopen in July and September, including potentially restarting in-person school, but the progression of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, is being watched closely by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

The trends in Maine have been mixed. For instance, the seven-day average of daily new cases declined from 71 on May 22 to 39.7 on Friday, despite a surge in testing. But hospitalizations this week were much higher – 50-60 per day – compared to last week, which saw statewide hospitalizations in the 35-45 range.

Meanwhile, seven employees who worked at the Maine Emergency Management Agency have tested negative for COVID-19, the Maine CDC said. The employees called in sick Thursday with symptoms similar to COVID-19.

The illnesses prompted the state to shut the MEMA site down for sanitization and transfer the daily media briefings that had been held there to a virtual format. The illnesses also raised concerns about the potential exposure of Mills, Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah and several state commissioners. But the CDC said none of the top state officials, who regularly attend the daily media briefings, had close contact with the ill employees.

Shah said state government is able to continue its work on COVID-19 even though the MEMA site has shifted entirely to a virtual operation.

With 56 additional recoveries, the number of Mainers with active cases of COVID-19 dropped from 703 to 683. Current hospitalizations also declined, from 58 on Thursday to 53 on Friday. Hospitalizations peaked at 60 on May 25.

Among hospitalized patients, 18 were in critical care and 12 were on ventilators to assist their respiration. A day earlier, there were 22 people in critical care and 14 on ventilators.

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 critical tools for treating hospitalized patients, and epidemiologists closely monitor the demand for these resources as they study the spread of the disease.

Overall, there have been 2,226 COVID-19 cases in Maine, with 85 deaths, 1,458 recoveries and 270 hospitalizations.

Indoor religious services were authorized to resume Friday under the reopening plan by the Mills administration. On Monday, retailers, state parks and beaches, lodging places and campgrounds can reopen for Maine residents and visitors who have quarantined for 14 days.

Mills has taken heat over a decision to postpone indoor dining in three counties – Cumberland, York and Androscoggin – that were slated to reopen Monday. Those three counties have higher incidence rates per capita of COVID-19 and an uptick in hospitalizations. Mills has pointed to greater likelihood of indoor transmission as a reason to delay indoor dining at restaurants.

Many have complained that Mills gave too little notice, making the change only a few days before the planned reopening. Outdoor dining is permitted.

Mills was criticized by a member of her own party Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Nate Libby, a Democrat from Lewiston.

“Restaurants here in Lewiston were diligently preparing to open in just a few days under the guidance they had,” Libby wrote in a Facebook post. “They were ordering food for delivery. They were training staff on new physical distancing requirements. They were getting ready to operate safely, then they had the rug pulled out from under them.”

Shah, the CDC director said Friday that state officials are always looking at compromises, and allowing outdoor dining is a “middle ground.” Neither he nor Mills gave a date for when indoor dining might resume in the three southern Maine counties.

“It really does depend on the data,” Shah said. “There’s not a particular date we have in mind. We’re not following the date, we are following the data. Emerging data shows the risk of transmission in outdoor setting is less if not significantly less than in indoor settings.”

The administration has prioritized outdoor activities over indoors in other ways, such as allowing private campgrounds to open early – Memorial Day weekend – and continuing a prohibition on indoor gyms.

Rules on social distancing for golf, which reopened in May, are being relaxed, and tennis resumed in May. While some Little Leagues have canceled their seasons, other local Little Leagues, such as in Falmouth, Lewiston and Augusta, are moving ahead with modified summer seasons.

Shah reported a new outbreak at Granite Bay Care in Saco, where three people tested positive for COVID-19. Granite Bay Care provides residential services for adults with intellectual, mental and physical disabilities.

And after another round of retesting at the Cape Memory Care center for those with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, a total of 78 tested positive, including 55 residents and 23 staff members. Four residents of Cape Memory Care have died of COVID-19, the CDC said.

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