A woman waits for the bus on Congress Street in Portland on during a mix of rain and snow on Wednesday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Maine businesses will no longer be required to close by 9 p.m. starting next week because of improving COVID-19 health metrics, Gov. Janet Mills announced Thursday.

Beginning Monday, businesses that had been subject to the requirement may resume evening operating hours while continuing to follow other public health and safety requirements. Mills pointed to Maine’s declining rate of positive tests and fewer cases per million people to support her decision.

“We are beginning to round the corner on the post-holiday surge of COVID-19,” she said. “With these improved public health metrics, and with the holidays behind us, it is appropriate to remove the early closing time requirement.”

Restaurants welcomed Mills’ announcement but indicated they would move cautiously.

Casey Hynes, general manager of Cushnoc Brewing Co. in Augusta, said he will “play it by ear” because late-night crowds are not his major clientele. He said the restaurant at 243 Water St. is open until 9 p.m. every day, and the door will remain open, if business warrants it.

“I’m encouraged that we feel like this is a safe move, especially for the restaurant industry,” Hynes said.

Sotirios Gudis, owner of OPA at 139 Main St. in downtown Waterville, expects to maintain his current schedule, closing at 9 p.m., though he will consider changing it.

“We’re going to do everything we can do to make sure everyone’s safe, and that’s our No. 1 priority,” Gudis said.

Luke Duplessis, owner of Mainely Brews Restaurant & Brewhouse at 1 Post Office Square in downtown Waterville, was unsure if expanded hours would draw many more customers and said he would not stay open as late as he did before the pandemic. “It’s tough right now,” he said.

Maine reported 284 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, the lowest weekday total in more than a month, along with five additional deaths. The seven-day positivity rate for PCR tests is 3.64 percent, down from 5.89 percent on Dec. 31.

There have now been 38,454 confirmed or probable cases of COVID-19 and 567 deaths since the pandemic reached Maine more than 10 months ago, but there are signs the virus’ spread could be slowing. The seven-day daily case average is now 404, which is down from 626 two weeks ago and 481 this time last month.

Even so, both Mills and Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, stressed Thursday that the pandemic still is very much ongoing and while variants of the virus have not yet been detected in Maine, they are making their way into other states.

“Although things are somewhat favorable and the post-holiday surge that we thought would happen and did happen may have leveled off a bit, we are still concerned about what we see on the horizon unfolding across the globe,” Shah said. “The bottom line is this is not a moment to say we’re done and over with it, it’s a moment to make sure we’re still doing all those things like keeping face coverings on, avoiding crowds and maintaining physical distance.”

The number of hospitalizations and deaths in Maine, which typically lag case numbers, remain high. There have been 220 deaths reported since Jan. 1, though some of those occurred in December and were not reported to or immediately confirmed by the CDC. Nationwide, there have been at least 425,000 COVID-19 related deaths and the total could eclipse a half million by next month, even as fewer cases are detected.

There were 171 people hospitalized with COVID-19 on Thursday, including 51 in critical care and 31 on a ventilator. The total number hospitalized is down from 183 on Wednesday. So far, 1,375 individuals have been in the hospital with COVID-19 at some point.

On Wednesday, the CDC released for the first time demographic details on the age, gender, race and county of residence of the people who have received vaccine shots.

As of Wednesday, 97,033 people had received at least the first dose, while 31,671 individuals (about 2.5 percent of Maine’s adult population) had received both shots of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines.

Just over 22,900 of the 97,033 people who received a first dose, or 23.6 percent, were age 70 or older, a population that is the target of the current vaccination push because older Mainers have significantly higher death rates from COVID-19. About 9 percent of the 31,671 individuals who received both shots were age 70 or older, likely due to the fact that the second dose must be administered 21 to 28 days after the first and that healthcare workers were given first priority in the state.

While the Maine CDC gathered data on the racial breakdown of vaccine recipients, racial or ethnic information was not provided for 40 percent of the 97,000-plus individuals who received at least one dose of vaccine. Of the 58,218 recipients who did indicate their race, 96.6 percent were white, 1.1 percent were Black, 1.1 percent were American Indian and 0.9 percent were Asian.

The state collects the demographic data as a way of ensuring it is reaching populations that have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, whether because of race, age or where they live, and is encouraging people to indicate their racial and ethnic backgrounds when they get vaccinated. “When you go to get vaccinated, the reason we ask for your race or ethnicity, is to ensure others of that same race or ethnic background can be vaccinated and we can ensure we’re getting vaccine to them,” Shah said.

Efforts also are underway to promote the vaccination among older residents to ensure those of all backgrounds have access. The state will be sending letters to 31,000 low-income older Mainers to give them information about their eligibility for vaccines and is sending vaccine to federally qualified health centers, including one that will be offering a vaccine clinic for Somali immigrants age 70 and over in the Lewiston area. Local area agencies on aging also will be working with the state to reach homebound seniors who may struggle to get to vaccine clinics.

“It will take time,” said Maine Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew. “We don’t have enough vaccine yet, even in the next month, to get to even half of all people ages 70 and older, but we will work to do so quickly, as well as equitably.”

The state announced Thursday that it has placed an order for first doses of the vaccine for 20,375 people and expects to receive it next week. The number represents an increase of 16 percent, or 2,800 doses, over the current week’s amount and is expected to remain the same for the next three weeks, which Shah said will help with planning.

“This degree of stability in our dose allocation levels is extremely useful to us as we start working on medium- and longer-term planning efforts,” he said. “Being able to know what we will get not just on Monday and Tuesday but for the subsequent Mondays and Tuesdays for two weeks after is very helpful.”

The Maine CDC also has received word from the U.S. CDC that 4,400 doses of the Moderna vaccine received last week are safe to use despite concerns the vaccine may have spoiled because of temperature issues in shipping. A safety investigation conducted by Moderna and the vaccine distributor found the doses’ safety and efficacy has not been compromised, and the state is now working with the sites that received those vaccines to put them to use.

There also are discussions underway with the U.S. CDC and Operation Warp Speed, the public-private partnership formed to facilitate vaccine supply and distribution, to determine whether those 4,400 doses will be counted toward a future shipment to Maine or if they will constitute extra doses since they have already been replaced by the federal government.

Also on Thursday, Maine colleges and universities announced plans for nursing and public health students to assist with vaccine deployment. The University of Maine System is expecting about 250 nursing students to put in about 3,000 collective volunteer hours administering vaccines this spring, while the Maine Community College System is partnering with hospitals and public health agencies to offer clinics in Fairfield, Presque Isle and Bangor.

The community college system has entered into a memorandum of understanding with the state so students in nursing, medical, public health and related programs can assist the Maine CDC with administering vaccines as needed. About 80 students and 10 faculty members at Northern Maine Community College will help administer 840 vaccines this week.

Morning Sentinel Staff Writer Greg Levinsky contributed to this report.

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