A woman wears a mask while crossing at the intersection of Middle and Exchange streets in Portland on Wednesday. Several blocks of Exchange Street have been closed off to expand pedestrian traffic and outdoor dining. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Maine is reconsidering its plan to allow bars to open for indoor service on July 1, after recent COVID-19 outbreaks in other states that have been tied to bar patrons.

Dr. Nirav Shah, Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention director, said that while Maine’s restaurants reopened this month, bars present additional challenges because they can be jammed with people talking loudly. Loud talking or singing create a higher risk of expanding the range of respiratory droplets containing the virus, making it more likely they will pass from one person to another.

“The nature of being in a bar itself is a very high-risk activity,” said Shah, speaking at Wednesday’s media briefing.

The Maine CDC reported 17 additional COVID-19 cases and one new death on Wednesday, continuing a trend of lower daily case counts.

Shah said outbreaks involving dozens of customers and employees at bars in Jacksonville, Florida, and Boise, Idaho, show how easily the novel coronavirus can spread in such places.

In general, indoor activities where social distancing is difficult and there is lots of loud talking or singing pose a higher risk.

“When we think about COVID-19, the duration and density of exposure, bars raise significant health concerns on both fronts,” Shah said. “This constellation of factors is prompting us in Maine as well as health authorities in a number of other states, including Massachusetts and Vermont, to re-evaluate our timeline for when bars can safely reopen.”

Although Gov. Janet Mills has generally followed the state’s staged reopening plan, she has made several adjustments to prioritize outdoor activities over indoor settings. Research has shown that there’s a greater risk of contracting the virus indoors.

One of the owners of Gritty McDuff’s Brew Pub says the state should stick to its plan and make decisions based on the trajectory the coronavirus is taking in Maine.

Richard Pfeffer doesn’t believe it makes sense to rely on a couple of incidents in other states to decide what steps Maine should take.

“I think that I’d want to see more clear science” rather than decisions that are made “willy-nilly,” he said Wednesday.

Gritty’s, which has locations in Portland, Auburn and Freeport, is classified as a restaurant and it has been reopened a few weeks, once restaurants in Cumberland County were allowed to serve diners outdoors.

Pfeffer said they have taken out some seating to reduce crowding for inside dining and his establishments will require people to sit at tables to maintain physical distancing.

“It’s not going to be as much fun by any means, but at the same time, we’re trying to follow protocol,” Pfeffer said.

He also said changing course just a few weeks from the planned opening for bars will make it difficult for owners and managers.

“You can’t plan, you can’t even hire,” he said, noting that some employees are opting to stay out of work because a federal stimulus package includes a $600 boost in weekly unemployment pay for some people.

Pfeffer said that the outlook for the summer season is bleak and he worries that it could be especially difficult next winter and spring if business doesn’t bounce back.

“I’m very fearful for the hospitality business in Maine right now,” he said.

Indoor restaurant dining in Cumberland, Androscoggin and York counties was not allowed to resume on June 1 as it was in the rest of the state, but was delayed until Wednesday because of the higher prevalence of COVID-18 cases in those three counties. Private campgrounds were allowed to start reopening over Memorial Day weekend, earlier than anticipated, instead of June 1. The Mills administration has a three-stage reopening plan, with most activities, including schools, restarting by September.

Bars and tasting rooms are permitted to serve customers outdoors starting Wednesday.

Other changes to the reopening plan included requiring retail businesses to post signs reminding customers to wear masks, and giving tourists a choice, starting June 26, to get tested in their home state prior to arriving in Maine or abiding by a 14-day quarantine once they arrive.

Recoveries increase

The Maine CDC reported Wednesday that another 42 people have recovered from the virus, bringing the number of active cases down to 442. Overall, Maine has had 2,836 COVID-19 cases, 102 deaths and 2,275 recoveries. The vast majority of the deaths have been among those over age 70.

The seven-day average of daily new cases declined to 28.4 on Wednesday, down from a high of 52.6 in late May.

Another favorable trend is the decline in the positive-test rate.

The overall positive-test rate among more than 73,000 molecular tests run to date in Maine fell from 4.46 percent Tuesday to 4.39 percent Wednesday. Prior to a major testing expansion in mid-May, Maine’s positive rate fluctuated between 5 percent and 6 percent.

The daily positive-test rate Wednesday was 1.36 percent of 1,689 tests. Maine will further expand testing in July, to about 35,000 tests per week.

A lower rate of positive tests means the state health agency is finding most cases of the disease and quarantining those infected and their close contacts to limit the spread of the virus. The goal, Shah has said, is to get the cumulative positive-test rate to about 2 percent, which is similar to South Korea’s. South Korea’s testing and contact tracing strategy is among the best in the world, and that country has had a far lower death rate – five per 1 million population – compared to 359 deaths per 1 million population for the United States. Maine has had 75 deaths per 1 million population.

Shah said trends are “positive, but we are not taking any victory laps.”

“We need to keep our collective feet squarely on the gas pedal,” Shah said.

Maine hospitals had 27 coronavirus inpatients on Wednesday, down three from Tuesday. Overall, Maine’s daily hospital population because of the disease has fallen from a high of 60 in late May to 30 or less in the past week. There were 15 people in critical care and five on a ventilator, continuing a downward trend in those numbers.

Hospitalization rates and death trends are key metrics for tracking the progress of the virus and efforts to contain it. 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.

Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy contributed to this report.

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