Gov. Mills removes gathering limits, physical distancing rules, but masks still required indoors

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May 13—The Mills administration will remove most COVID-19 restrictions later this month, lifting capacity limits as well as physical distancing requirements in outdoor settings and most indoor venues.

But a face-covering mandate will remain in place for indoor spaces accessible to the public — for now, at least — and restaurants will still have to space out tables indoors.

Gov. Janet Mills announced Thursday that the changes on capacity limits and physical distancing will take effect on May 24, days before the Memorial Day weekend ushers in what is expected to be a busy summer tourism season in Maine. The relaxed restrictions will allow performing arts venues, movie theaters, sporting events and eating/drinking establishments with outdoor seating to return to full capacity without physical distancing requirements.

"These changes are aligned with the latest science and they make sense for Maine at this stage, I think, given the percentage of our population that has been vaccinated," Mills said during a virtual press conference. "I want to be clear: we are still living through a pandemic and these changes don't come without some risk, especially for those who remain unvaccinated. Please, I beg you . . . please protect yourselves and your families by getting vaccinated."

Mills also said the state would soon update distancing rules for Maine schools.

Mills and members of her team made the announcement at the exact time that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new guidance saying that indoor mask mandates could be relaxed for fully vaccinated people. The guidance, if implemented at the state level, would allow vaccinated individuals to stop wearing masks inside in most places.

The governor and Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said they had to review the federal guidance before making any decisions about whether to change Maine's mask mandate.

"We just learned about it and, again, we have not received it or reviewed it," Shah said. "That's got to be step one. Where we go after that, I can't speculate."

Mills is keeping the physical distancing requirements for bars, restaurants and other indoor, public settings where most people just remove masks in order to eat or drink, however. Maine already has loosened its mask mandate for outdoors and has been welcoming visitors from any state without proof of a negative COVID-19 test since May 1.

Meanwhile, state health officials reported 295 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, the sixth time in the last seven days that daily cases were below 300. No additional deaths were reported.

The seven-day daily case average now stands at 267, down slightly from 297 two weeks ago but down considerably from the spring peak average of 475 cases on April 18. Since the pandemic began, there have been 65,043 confirmed or probable cases of COVID-19 and 798 deaths, according to data tracked by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Cases have been falling sharply across the country as well. According to the U.S. CDC, the seven-day daily average is just under 37,000, down from roughly 70,000 cases per day a month ago. It's the lowest rate since last September. The average number of daily COVID-19 deaths has fallen to 586, which is the lowest since the early days of the pandemic.

Despite the drop in new cases, hospitalizations remain high in Maine. As of Thursday, there were 118 individuals in the hospital with COVID-19, including 48 in critical care and 27 on ventilators. It's the first time daily hospitalizations have been as low as 118 in two weeks, the highest sustained levels since early February.

Meanwhile, vaccinations have continued to slow down this week, even as the state has opened eligibility to children between the age of 12-15 following federal emergency use authorization for that age group. As of Thursday, Maine has administered 661,051 first doses, representing 49.2 percent of the state's population, and 612,791 final doses, accounting for 45.6 percent of residents, although the average number of daily shots has been cut in half since this time last month.

Among those 60 or older, nearly 81 percent are fully vaccinated, but among those between 16 and 39, who have been eligible for more than a month, the percentage that has gotten a first dose is just 42 percent. There continue to be wide variances in vaccination rates by county, ranging from a high of 54 percent overall in Cumberland County to a low of 37 percent in Somerset County.

Despite the slowdown, Maine still ranks among the top states for vaccination rates. Late Wednesday, Gov. Janet Mills announced that the state had reached another milestone — 70 percent of adults have gotten at least one shot, according to the U.S. CDC's tracker. That percentage takes into account both the number of people age 18 and older who have received at least one dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, and those who have received the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

Of the five other states that have reached that threshold, four are in New England. The other is Hawaii.

Other vaccine databases, which use different population and vaccination categories, report slightly different rankings, but all show that Maine and the other New England states are among the best at getting people vaccinated.

"Maine continues to make nation-leading strides in getting shots into arms," Mills said in a statement. "Maine people, our medical professionals and volunteers across the state, the Maine National Guard, and our teams at the Department of Health and Human Services and the Maine CDC all deserve credit for this achievement.

"There is more work to be done, and we will continue our efforts to make the vaccine more accessible for more people, as we also encourage folks to do their part and roll up their sleeve to help us get back to normal faster.'"

This story will be updated.

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