The Mills administration imposed a 9 p.m. curfew on all restaurants, movie theaters, tasting rooms and casinos as the number of coronavirus cases in a single day jumped higher than 200 again.
The new limits on operating hours, part of new restrictions aimed at tamping down Maine’s rate of COVID-19 cases, will begin Friday and extend through December 6. The 9 p.m. closing time will apply to establishments that provide indoor dining and drink service, bars and tasting rooms that offer outdoor service, movie theaters, performing arts venues, social clubs as well as both indoor and outdoor “amusement venues.”
“As we enter the colder months and a holiday season when we customarily gather with friends and family, we are also entering a new and dangerous phase of the pandemic,” Mills said in a statement. “Since the beginning of this pandemic, we have been performing a balancing act, basing our decisions on science and medical expertise, weighing the safety of reopening with the necessity of getting back to business. This targeted and temporary step will reduce extended gatherings while keeping the businesses open.”
Mills also warned that “other steps may be necessary in the coming weeks if we do not get this virus under control,’ however, as she urged residents to wear masks, practice physical distancing, wash their hands frequently and avoid gatherings.
The additional restrictions — similar to limits imposed on businesses in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont and New York — were announced on a day when state health officials reported 215 new cases of COVID-19 and one additional death.
Thursday was the 11th consecutive day that the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention has reported more than 100 new cases of the coronavirus and the 4th time in 11 days that there have been more than 200 new cases. The additional death raises the total to 24 so far in November compared to just six in all of October.
The latest fatality was a woman in her 40s from Kennebec County — only the 6th death in Maine of someone under the age of 50.
Hospitalizations increased Thursday to 88. Of those, 35 individuals are in critical care and 12 are on a ventilator.
“That is the most number of people we have had hospitalized w/COVID,” Maine CDC director Dr. Nirav Shah said Thursday on Twitter. “Please think about them when you are deciding whether to wear a mask.”
Exactly one month ago, there were just eight individuals hospitalized with COVID-19. Hospitals across the state have begun preparing for an additional surge in patients and many have the ability to convert beds to critical care if needed.
Since the pandemic began, the Maine CDC has tracked 9,734 total confirmed or probable cases of the disease in the state, as well as 171 deaths among individuals who contracted COVID-19. More than 30 percent of the state’s total cases have come this month.
Maine’s 7-day average of new cases stood at 194 as of Thursday, compared to 173 one week ago and just 32 a month ago. The number of active cases was 2,160 after accounting for the 171 deaths and the 7,403 individuals who have recovered from the disease. That is an increase of 40 since Wednesday. New cases were reported Thursday in every county except Piscataquis. Cumberland County led the way with 54 cases, followed by Penobscot County (40), York County (31), and Androscoggin County (21).
For months, Maine’s daily case totals were among the lowest in the country, bottoming out at an average of 14 cases per day in early August and never going above an average high of 40 cases per day since late May. But starting in mid-October, the virus began rising rapidly across nearly every area of the state as the long-anticipated fall or winter spike arrived earlier and with more force than state officials and health care professionals had hoped.
The Maine CDC said Wednesday that it will no longer investigate probable cases of COVID-19 in individuals who haven’t tested positive even if they have had contact with someone who has.
Investigations into probable cases have been used to try to determine the source of the virus and alert others who may have had close contact with a positive case. The state defines a close contact as any person who was within 6 feet of a COVID-19 case for 15 or more minutes.
During a news briefing Wednesday, Shah said the onset of cold and flu season is likely leading to the increase in probable cases of COVID-19 being reported across the state because cold and flu symptoms are similar to those for COVID-19: fever, runny nose, difficulty breathing. He said flu season was forcing the CDC to evaluate its policy going forward.
Cases have been surging in every state. Over the last two weeks, the average case count in the U.S. has increased by 80 percent to around 160,000 each day. The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 has doubled in a month. As of Tuesday, nearly 77,000 were hospitalized with the virus. The country is now averaging more than 1,155 deaths per day, which is the highest in months. On Wednesday, a grim milestone was reached — more than 250,000 people dead from COVID-19.
Many states have begun instituting additional restrictions to combat further spread, from closing restaurants to in-person dining to placing limits on gatherings. Some states that had avoided mask mandates have now put them in place.
Although Maine is seeing more cases and hospitalizations than ever, the state COVID-19 infection and death rates remain among the lowest in the nation. Nevertheless, the surge has prompted Gov. Janet Mills and state health officials to impose a statewide mask mandate in all public settings, to delay resumption of indoor bar service and to restrict the number of people allowed worrying to gather indoors.
Mills has resisted ordering the type of statewide “lockdown” or stay-at-home order that imposed in the spring, despite much more serious case numbers. The governor said Wednesday that, without the type of federal assistance for individuals and businesses that was available in the spring, a statewide lockdown would have an even more dramatic impact on the economy and people.
But she urged residents to re-think any traveling or large gatherings over the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday.
“Maine people need to ask themselves, ‘Do I have to take this trip?’ if the answer is honestly ‘No,’ don’t go,” she said.
This story will be updated.