Maine this week entered Phase Four of its COVID-19 reopening plan, an important milestone for a state that has correctly prioritized public health — and has been rewarded with low case counts and a good economic rebound relative to other states.

But it is under no circumstances an indication that trouble is behind us. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Under Phase Four, announced last week by Gov. Janet Mills, indoor seating capacity at restaurants will be expanded to 50% of capacity or 100 people, whichever is fewer. The same limits will apply to bars when they are allowed to reopen Nov. 2.

Restaurant and bar owners welcomed the development, though it puts them in a tough position — some say they can’t be profitable even with the expanded limits, but lifting the limits further would put public health at risk.

And still, many remain worried about putting patrons and employees in harm’s way — and for good reason.

Cases of COVID-19 in Maine still remain relatively low. But they’ve been trending upward since August, and the state is currently tracking a number of outbreaks, including one in which a hockey referee with the coronavirus may have come into contact with 400 people over two days last week.

Cases are also rising throughout the Northeast, which is seeing a bump after mostly controlling the virus for months. And temperatures in the region will only go down from here, sending more people indoors and raising the risk that cases could spike to the point where they get out of hand.

Bars and restaurants, where people spend an extended period of time near each other indoors, talking, often loudly, are areas where the virus can be spread easily. Just as many owners are reluctant to bring guests into that environment, many people are not willing just yet to go out to eat or have a drink indoors.

So whether by choice or government edict, it’s clear many of these businesses won’t be a full strength for a while.

That’s not to mention the other kinds of businesses hit the hardest by the pandemic that are not seeing any relief. That includes performing arts centers, which are not profitable with the 100-person limit, and don’t have performers to put on stage if it was.

Movie theaters, too, are in peril across the country as the virus keeps people away and Hollywood studios pull new movies from their schedule.

Members of Congress must recognize that many businesses — whole industries even — will remain shut down or at limited capacity for some time. Just because many businesses are restarting or ramping up cannot keep Congress from providing relief for those that aren’t.

Likewise, the lifting of restrictions on bars and restaurants isn’t a sign that those places are risk-free. To the contrary, they should only be enjoyed while following the safety rules in place, such as keeping your distance from others and wearing a mask when appropriate.

Otherwise, cases are likely to spike again, which would likely force the state to impose restrictions once again. In any case, it would cause many people to stop going out even in a limited fashion.

Neither more cases nor more skittish diners are good for the Maine economy and its public health, which at this point are very much intertwined.

To make the most of Phase Four, Maine has to continue to prioritize public health.

 


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