People walk and run Sunday on Mother’s Beach in Kennebunk, where swings are padlocked together to keep people from using them. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Maine reported five additional deaths and 28 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, a day after more than 1,000 people crammed into downtown Portland to join national protests against police brutality.

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said at an afternoon media briefing that large crowds are a risk factor but no cases have yet been connected to protests in Maine. In addition to Monday’s protest, there also have been several demonstrations in recent weeks against Gov. Janet Mills’ reopening plan, which has limited business activity to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19, the disease caused by he coronavirus.

Shah said it could take days or weeks before cases emerge that could be linked to the protests. It was about a week after a packed Lake of the Ozarks pool party on Memorial Day weekend in Missouri that a positive case of COVID-19 was detected in a partygoer, according to news reports.

“Close congregate settings can generate a high number of cases in a short amount of time,” Shah said. “Just because we haven’t yet detected any outbreaks of that nature is really more a sign of not enough time has elapsed yet.”

The CDC reported Tuesday that 60 more people have recovered from COVID-19, and the number of active cases declined. Overall, there have been 2,377 cases in Maine since the pandemic began. With a total of 1,646 recoveries and 94 deaths, the number of active cases stood at 637, down from 674 on Monday.

Protests against police brutality against black Americans have taken place in Maine following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, generating increasingly large crowds. About 1,000 people protested in downtown Portland on Monday night, many packed shoulder-to-shoulder. Many were not wearing masks.

“I would ask everyone who is going out there in any circumstance to please wear a face covering and if possible maintain as much physical distance between one person and another,” Shah said. “In any event, the more people wearing face coverings, whatever the situation, overall the less likelihood of transmission there is.”

Gov. Janet Mills’ executive order currently prohibits gatherings of more than 50 people.

Jeanne Lambrew, health and human services commissioner, said protests should be limited to 50 people or fewer.

“We know it’s harder to do that kind of physical distancing (staying 6 feet apart) when you exceed 50 people gathering,” Lambrew said.

Outrage over police brutality flared after former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was caught in a bystander’s video kneeling on the neck of Floyd, 46, whom they had taken into custody. Police said he matched the description of someone who passed a counterfeit $20 bill inside a convenience store.

Chauvin – who has been arrested and charged with third-degree murder in Floyd’s death on May 25 – pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for nearly 9 minutes as Floyd said he could not breathe. Floyd lost consciousness and was pronounced dead a short time later at a nearby hospital. The three other officers who stood by and watched were fired but have not been charged.

Protesters in downtown Portland held a “die-in,” lying face down on the ground and chanting, “I can’t breathe.”

In addition to concerns over protest crowd sizes, Maine is entering tourist season, and even if not as many people are vacationing this summer, Maine could still get a flood of tourists from COVID-19 hot spots such as Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey. Traditionally, crowds have packed into Portland’s Old Port, Bar Harbor, Acadia National Park, Fort Williams, Old Orchard Beach and many other favorite tourist destinations.

Reopening continues

The five COVID-19 deaths reported Tuesday included two women and a man in their 70s from Cumberland County, a man in his 60s from Penobscot County and a woman in her 100s from Cumberland County.

The latest case numbers paint a mixed picture as reopening continues. Testing and contact tracing have been greatly expanded, increasing the state’s ability to contain the virus’ spread.

Forty-eight Mainers are currently hospitalized with COVID-19, unchanged from Monday. Among those, 16 are in critical care and 10 are using ventilators to support their breathing, roughly the same numbers as Monday. The state has 156 available intensive care unit beds at hospitals and 245 available 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.

The rate of positive tests out of the total – another key metric that shows how effective the state is at finding COVID-19 cases and then tracking close contacts and isolating people to prevent further spread – dipped below 5 percent for the first time Tuesday, to 4.95 percent out of 57,635 total tests. The goal, Shah has said, is to drive down the positivity rate to the 2-3 percent range, similar to South Korea, which has an effective tracing and testing program. Maine’s positivity rate has hovered around 5 percent, but was closer to 6 percent about two weeks ago. When Maine expanded testing, the positivity rate started to decline.

Shah said that expanded testing has found more cases of asymptomatic people who have COVID-19, and those people are then isolated. If the state can find asymptomatic COVID-19 carriers, Shah said, that is an effective way to prevent transmission, because if people don’t know they are contagious, they are more likely to engage with others and spread the virus.

Also on Tuesday, the Maine DHHS launched the “Keep it Maine” campaign to encourage Mainers to follow physical distancing guidelines, hygiene and other ways to keep Maine among the lowest rates of COVID-19 in the nation. Maine has the eighth-lowest number of positive cases per capita in the country, and it is spending $250,000 in federal funding on the outreach campaign.

“We stay the course and we work together to do what’s right for our loved ones, friends and neighbors,” Lambrew said in a statement. “The campaign’s theme is built around this shared achievement. Let’s keep it up. Let’s keep it Maine.”

On Monday, the state dropped the distinction between essential and nonessential businesses, which means all retail stores can now open, with customer limits based on square footage and other restrictions. Parks, beaches, lodging places and campgrounds also may open to patrons, provided they’re Maine residents or out-of-staters who have quarantined for two weeks.

Restaurants in Cumberland, York and Androscoggin County are permitted to open for outdoor dining, but will have to wait longer before allowing patrons inside. Mills has not set a date and that uncertainty has led to criticism from the restaurant industry. Lambrew said on Tuesday that no decisions have been made on a new date for indoor dining for those three counties.

Previously established restrictions on public transportation remain in place and should be used for essential purposes only. Restrictions on certain gatherings, including religious services, have increased from 10 to 50.

The governor’s mandatory 14-day quarantine for out-of-state visitors remains in place, even amid legal challenges and as many in the hospitality industry have called on Mills to drop it. She has said she is looking at all options but has not found a safe alternative.

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