“Reopening” has hit some major setbacks. The heedlessness of the president and his followers is a big part of the problem.

Yet coronavirus numbers present a clear picture: They’re rising throughout the South and West, including some “blue” states whose leaders have been somewhat more cautious than GOP governors in Texas, Florida and Arizona, who threw caution to the winds.

The only region where cases are falling is the Northeast, which bore the brunt early on. A false sense that the worst was over is undoubtedly why the virus is spreading elsewhere, but New England’s governors have managed reasonably well after uncertain starts.

The numbers are still grim. Spreading from the New York epicenter, death rates in Connecticut and Massachusetts are still among the highest, at 121 and 117 per 100,000 population, with Rhode Island not far behind, at 88.

Northern New England has been spared the worst; Maine and Vermont are at 8 and 9, while New Hampshire has 27 deaths per 100,000. The soundness of Gov. Janet Mills’s approach has been confirmed, including the 14-day quarantine for visitors — inaptly called “non-essential persons” on highway signs.

Other Northeastern states are now adopting the rule, which Mills pioneered. Such quarantines are not universally effective, but that’s not the point: Slowing the spread, and containing the outbreaks, is the key to buying time to develop more effective measures.

Yet Maine is in a curious situation. It may be relatively safe to venture out, masked and physically distanced, but there’s also huge reluctance to do so among many.

This has produced wide variations in reopening policies, with churches a striking example. Early on, the Trump administration pushed the notion churches were being discriminated against because “essential businesses” could open but they could not.

It’s a false analogy. The public health reason to be cautious on church services is simple: At stores, contact between individuals is fleeting, and contact time is a major factor in whether one individual infects another.

Yet churches have advantages over other large gatherings, including sports events and concerts. Those attending know and respect each other; they’re far more likely to observe precautions, from mask-wearing and physical distancing to hand sanitizing and disinfection.

As of June 1, Maine churches could reopen, and the Catholic Church was the first “mainline” denomination to do so. Some evangelical churches never really shut down, and there are some notorious, much cited, examples elsewhere of disastrous consequences.

One Pentecostal church in Oregon gathered with no precautions on Memorial Day weekend, producing 258 confirmed COVID-19 cases. Its pastor said it did so “in accordance with President Trump.”

One hopes there will be no repetition here. Most Protestant churches in the Augusta area are moving toward services in August or September, but not all. One church’s national organization “strongly recommends” no services until May 2021.

What’s the right approach for institutions most Mainers believe in, even if a smaller — though still substantial — number regularly attend, for whom in-person gatherings are vital to their faith and spirituality?

My own church remains closed, so I attended a Catholic mass with a friend. I felt safe, and saw nothing to prompt public health concerns.

One must sign up, to ensure no more than 50 are attending. That’s a hardship for larger churches; other states allow 25% of maximum occupancy, something that might also work in Maine.

Yet attendance will be down for awhile and, for vulnerable parishioners, probably permanently. St. Michael Parish, which has six churches sharing two priests, experimented with services immediately, and expanded to all churches June 21.

There were 35 at a service that normally draws 70, and reduced attendance may be experienced by other churches, too. Getting back to anything like “normal” will take time, and experience.

The congregation remained masked, while the priest and a musical accompanist were not, though they were far away from everyone else. It was surprising that singing from masked congregants was still pleasing, and audible.

New guidelines charge ushers with directing people to maintain distancing, and there’s no coffee and cake afterward, nor hugs and handshakes. Still, it was recognizably church, and obviously of great comfort to many who haven’t seen each other for so long.

We’ll have to negotiate similar tradeoffs everywhere. This week, the American Academy of Pediatrics strongly recommended returning to school classes this fall because, essentially, benefits far outweigh risks.

What individual churches and denominations do is their decision. Most, including St. Michael, have offered online access throughout the pandemic. Churches should consider how to improve their electronic coverage, since many won’t feel able to attend.

Ultimately, though, church is about being together. There’s no way Zoom will ever replace that.

Douglas Rooks, a Maine editor, reporter, opinion writer and author for 35 years, has published books about George Mitchell, and the Maine Democratic Party. He welcomes comment at: [email protected]

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