Gov. Janet Mills talks with the media Friday during a visit to MaineHealth’s high-volume vaccination clinic at Scarborough Downs. Maine CDC Director Nirav Shah is in the background. Mills announced a plan for easing coronavirus restrictions, saying, “It’s time to turn our attention again to the economy.”  Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Declaring “Maine is open,” Gov. Janet Mills announced Friday that she is easing capacity restrictions on businesses and loosening quarantine requirements for out-of-state visitors in an effort to provide an early boost to the crucial summertime tourism industry.

Beginning immediately, residents of all New England states will be exempt from quarantine or testing requirements before visiting Maine, as will residents of any state who have been fully vaccinated or recently had and recovered from COVID-19. Starting May 1, Maine also will lift the quarantine or testing requirements for all states except those singled out as having high rates of COVID-19.

More broadly, the Mills administration is easing capacity restrictions on businesses as well as indoor and outdoor gatherings later this month and then expanding those further in May, just before the Memorial Day weekend. Bars and tasting rooms will be allowed to resume indoor service on March 26 and will operate under the same guidelines as restaurants.

At a news conference Friday, Mills said the state has made great progress on vaccinations – nearly 20 percent of residents have received at least one shot – and that new cases of COVID-19 have been trending downward since a post-holiday surge. Mills’ primary focus during the pandemic has been keeping Mainers safe and alive, adopting a philosophy that you can’t have a healthy economy without healthy people. The state’s rates of virus transmission and deaths from COVID-19 remain among the lowest of any state.

“It’s time to turn our attention again to the economy,” she said. “We want our state to be both welcoming and safe and live up to our Vacationland name.”

The new plan, called Moving Maine Forward, is a reversal from current policy, which requires testing and/or quarantine for all states except those specifically exempt, which before Friday was only New Hampshire and Vermont. The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention will identify non-exempt states going forward based on the prevalence of highly contagious variants of COVID-19.

Mills, a Democrat, did not alter the state’s mask mandate in public spaces, as some Republican governors have done, or make any changes to physical distancing requirements. Those restrictions are likely to remain in place through the summer, she said.

But all businesses and entities will be able to begin welcoming more patrons and visitors as follows:

• For indoor gatherings, capacity will increase to 50 percent on March 26 and to 75 percent on May 24.

• For outdoor gatherings, capacity will increase to 75 percent on March 26 and to 100 percent on May 24.

• Businesses currently operating at higher capacity limits because of ample space – 50-person limits indoors, 100-person limits outdoors or five people per 1,000 square feet – can continue using those standards until May 24.

Heather Johnson, Maine’s commissioner of economic and community development, said the Mills’ administration solicited input from the business community in crafting the new plan.

“We actually take feedback across the board … and we reach out intentionally to business owners across the state to get geographic representation,” she said.

Business and tourism groups, many of which have been pushing for changes going back to last summer, enthusiastically welcomed the news.

“Knowing the importance that tourism means to our state’s economy and the challenges of this past year, the governor’s press conference today was both very positive and very promising,” said Dana Connors, president and CEO of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce. “It gives us reassurance as well as an expectation of what the summer opportunities will be.”

Businesses that survived last summer were bracing for another tough season, he said, one that without changes could have been even harder. Friday’s announcement “provides that promise of, ‘we’re getting back into the game.'”

“The challenge of trying to erase the impact of last year in one year is a tall order,” he said.

Within the next few weeks, restaurants and shops in one of Maine’s premier tourist destinations – Bar Harbor – will start to open their doors as the tourist season ramps up.

When they do, “they’re really going to appreciate that they can welcome one or two more tables … or have two or three more customers inside,” said Alf Anderson, executive director of the Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce.

In a town so driven by tourism, Friday’s announcement means the possibility for more out of state visitors, a huge part of the local economy.

“Last summer was one challenge after another and it was something none of us had ever seen,” Anderson said, likening it to “whack-a-mole” where problems and restrictions just kept cropping up. “This year we have the benefit of a year of having gone through it. … I’m happy to see the governor putting some faith in the business community to show we welcomed them safely last year and we can do it again.”

Others welcomed the changes as well.

“HospitalityMaine is incredibly excited for these changes, which will help support our industry during the important months ahead,” said Greg Dugal, director of government affairs for HospitalityMaine, which represents the state’s restaurant and lodging industry. “We look forward to continuing to work with the governor to make this a successful and safe tourism season for Maine people, visitors and businesses alike.”

Added Curtis Picard, president and CEO of the Retail Association of Maine: “This will help return us to some sense of normalcy, encourage safe travel to Maine this spring and summer, and continue to balance public health with economic recovery.”

Lauren Wayne, general manager of the State Theatre in Portland, which hosts concerts and also promotes the outdoor shows at Thompson’s Point, said the news is positive but won’t mean immediate changes for her business.

“Speaking for only my business, we’re not made whole until we can operate at full capacity,” she said. “Many people don’t realize that opening at 100 percent is great, but if you still have to maintain 6-foot distance, that doesn’t really work.”

Still, Wayne expects that the State Theatre will consider hosting some smaller acts.

“Our business model is based on the national touring industry and those acts aren’t going to book dates unless they can travel to enough states,” she said. “So it’s really kind of wait and see for us, but things are certainly moving in the right direction.”

Wayne said she was not consulted on the reopening plan and didn’t know of anyone in the performing arts industry who was.

Mills stressed that the changes announced Friday will not mean an immediate return to normal and she urged Mainers to stay vigilant until enough people are vaccinated to reach herd immunity.

She also said uncertainty remains for some industries – cruise ships, for example – and pointed out that the Canadian border remains closed. Visitors from Canada represent a big percentage of summer and year-round visitors.

But Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine CDC, said many activities – outdoor activities, especially – can be done safely with simple precautions. He said last summer, when Maine didn’t see a spike in cases, is proof of that.

Friday’s announcement does not mean any changes for schools. Although teachers and child care staff are now eligible for vaccines, Maine Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew said Thursday that there is no immediate plan to change the guidance for schools.

Staff Writer Hannah LaClaire contributed to this story

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