Gov. Janet Mills announced Wednesday that she will toughen mask-wearing requirements in areas of Maine, even as she relaxes quarantine and testing rules for visitors from three more states in the Northeast.

Visitors from Connecticut, New York and New Jersey soon will be exempted from Maine’s requirement that they quarantine for 14 days or provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test, Mills said.

She also said a new executive order coming soon would require many businesses to enforce mask-wearing indoors.

The order will require large retail stores, lodging establishments, restaurants, and outdoor bars and tasting rooms in the coastal counties of Hancock, Waldo, Knox, Lincoln, Sagadahoc, Cumberland and York, and in the more populous cities of Bangor and Brewer and Lewiston and Auburn, to enforce the state’s face-covering requirement.

An executive order currently in place requires businesses to post signs reminding customers to wear a mask.

“Especially seeing the dangerous trends in southern and southwestern states after they lifted restrictions dramatically, we have to take this virus seriously, and we must continue to protect one another,” Mills said at a media briefing.

Despite news reports of some people in other states reacting angrily to mask requirements in stores, the governor said she believes most people will follow the rules. Wearing masks, especially in indoor public places, is a key strategy to containing the virus.

“It’s the same thing as saying, ‘No shirt, no service, no shoes no service,'” Mills said. “It’s just the rules of the game.”

The quarantine and testing exemption for visitors from New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, which goes into effect Friday, follows a state review of public health data that shows the three states have a lower rate of positive tests for the coronavirus than Maine and a similar virus prevalence that continues on a downward trend, according to a statement from Mills’ office.

“We were satisfied their rates were coming down sufficiently to put them on par with the state of Maine,” Mills said at the briefing Wednesday, the same day a new stage of reopening began, allowing entertainment venues such as movie theaters, bowling alleys and arcades to open.

The three states join the two – New Hampshire and Vermont – that were previously exempted because of their low case prevalence and rates of positive tests.

Mills and Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said the agency conducts a comprehensive analysis of what the virus is doing in other states before adding them to the list of states whose residents don’t need a negative test or have to quarantine to visit Maine.

The prevalence of the virus has dropped dramatically in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, and other key metrics have improved, such as hospitalizations, deaths and the ability to test and trace.

The governor’s announcement offered a “small ray of hope,” for beleaguered restaurants and lodging establishments, but fell far short of what’s needed to head off a disaster this summer, said Steve Hewins, president and chief executive of Hospitality Maine.

Hewins said he was especially disappointed – and perplexed – that Massachusetts wasn’t included, because Bay State visitors account for a critical share of summer tourists.

“It’s a move in the right direction for Maine’s tourism and hospitality industry,” Hewins said. “We are unclear why Massachusetts, our No. 1 feeder state, was not included.”

The quarantine and testing requirement remains in place for visitors from all other states, Mills said, including Massachusetts and Rhode Island. While those states have improved in some areas, the metrics were not quite as good in those two states as in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.

Mills said if Massachusetts and Rhode Island continue to improve, they could be added to the list of exempt states later.

“We are delighted to have the opportunity to safely serve tourists from those additional states,” said Kimberly Lindlof, president and chief executive at the Mid-Maine Chamber of Commerce in Waterville.

A sign at Casco Bay Lines informs passengers to maintain 6 feet of distance from fellow passengers and crew. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Hewins said he and HospitalityMaine members support the new mask-wearing executive order.

“Close customer contact is part of what we do,” he said. “Customers want to feel confident and workers want to feel protected.”

Jeanne Lambrew, Maine’s health and human services commissioner, said “workers in Maine in hospitality are at risk. We want to protect them. One of the best ways to protect them is ensuring people who come into facilities have these face coverings.”

Lindlof said her members support requiring customers to wear masks, but are concerned about their ability to enforce the executive order.

“They can’t make a customer wear a mask,” Lindlof said. “They don’t have any authority.”

Quincy Hentzel, CEO of the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce, said face coverings are emphasized by the chamber, which recently partnered with the Retail Association of Maine and the Maine Grocers and Food Producers Association to launch a Be Kind campaign.

“A major facet of the campaign is to continue to encourage the proper health and safety protocols, including wearing face coverings,” she said. “It’s a proven way to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and we should all do our part to keep Maine’s cases low.”

The Maine CDC reported 41 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, with no additional deaths, as the state enters the third stage of its reopening plan.

Since the pandemic began, Maine has had 3,294 COVID-19 cases and 105 deaths. Also, 2,671 people have recovered, an increase of 25 since Tuesday. Active cases increased from 502 on Tuesday to 518 on Wednesday. Current hospitalizations stayed the same at 29, including eight patients in intensive care beds and three using ventilators.

Maine also is deepening its partnership with Idexx laboratories this month, improving the state’s capability to test, track and isolate cases of COVID-19, and potentially slow the transmission rate.

Mills’ reopening plan authorizes more businesses, including movie theaters, performing arts venues, bowling alleys, arcades, amusement parks, and spas or skin-care establishments to resume operations Wednesday. The businesses will have to follow checklists of health and safety guidelines, including capacity limits for some businesses and use of personal protective equipment.

Casinos also were slated to reopen on Wednesday, but they were left off the list. Mills said negotiations between state officials and casino operators were “still underway.”

Maine has not experienced the large spikes in new cases being seen in southern and western states such as Florida, Texas, Arizona and California.

New Jersey, New York City and California announced new restrictions on indoor dining, based on large outbreaks in other states stemming from indoor places, such as bars. Maine permits indoor dining, but delayed indoor service at bars after analyzing outbreaks at bars in other states. Large crowds without masks gathering outside of bars on Wharf Street in Portland resulted in a city code enforcement crackdown last weekend.

The state’s cumulative percent positive rate has now fallen to 3.85 percent, after being between 5 and 6 percent in April and May. With increased testing, the percent that have come back positive has plummeted, which is a key metric. If positive rates are low, that means health officials are finding most cases of the disease and have a better chance of having the testing, contact tracing and isolation strategy work to halt transmission of the virus. If done successfully, the strategy can drive down cases to near zero and allow for more segments of society to reopen without a major resurgence of the virus.

Staff Writer Tux Turkel contributed to this report.

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