People sit with masks hanging from their ears next to a sign in Castine encouraging the use of face coverings of Aug. 26. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN

When in doubt, wear a mask.

That’s the takeaway from Gov. Janet Mills’ Thursday order requiring Mainers to wear masks in public even if they can keep a safe distance from others, according to one public health expert.

Mills issued the order this week as Maine has continued to see record numbers of new daily cases of the coronavirus, with another 163 cases reported Thursday in 15 of the state’s 16 counties.

The new order requires face coverings in public settings, which include any indoor spaces that are publicly accessible, such as retail stores, gyms and pharmacies, as well as outdoor spaces such as sidewalks, playgrounds and parking lots where people are often gathering in smaller areas but where they often can stay 6 feet away from others.

The order itself sys the meaning of public settings should be “broadly construed,” and does not clarify whether people should wear masks in specific situations, such as while hiking or participating in athletic activities.

But hiking trails are not considered public settings, so the mandate does not apply there, Mills spokesperson Lindsay Crete said.

As for athletic activities, Crete said the administration is in discussions with the Maine Principals’ Association, which oversees high school sports, and school district leaders about the use of face coverings during school sports. So far, students participating in athletic activities have not needed masks.

As for the takeaway from the expanded face covering rule, “If someone is asking themselves whether they should wear a face covering, the answer is most likely yes,” Crete said. 

Dr. Robert Horsburgh, a professor of epidemiology at Boston University, went a step further.

“If you’re not by yourself, you wear a mask,” he said. “Now we don’t have to worry that somebody thinks you’re too close to them without a mask, because you shouldn’t be within sight of somebody without a mask.” 

Mills’ most recent order replaced an earlier one that generally required face coverings where social distancing was impossible or difficult to maintain. 

Horsburgh called it an important step, saying he expects it will lead to more people wearing masks because they will recognize it as a measure taken in response to the worsening virus conditions.

“Many people, I think, will take this measure that they wouldn’t have taken before because now it’s been legitimized,” Horsburgh said. “It’s saying to people that this is more serious. It’s time to worry about this more and be more careful.”

Maine’s order comes a week after Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker announced a similar tightening of masking requirements after the state saw a steep increase in daily COVID-19 cases in late October. Massachusetts has seen an average of 1,297 new daily cases over the past week, up 76 percent from two weeks prior. Maine’s seven-day average, by comparison, was 118.7 as of Wednesday, up from 34.1 two weeks earlier.

While Massachusetts is bigger and more densely populated than Maine, the order is no less significant in Maine, Horsburgh said.

“It isn’t necessarily only a big city phenomenon. Anytime people get together, it can spread,” he said. “You’ve seen that at churches and weddings, and we’ve seen it, too.”

But in Massachusetts, a number of public health experts have questioned the need for Baker’s order, noting that there’s limited evidence of the virus spreading outdoors and that overly expansive public health mandates can reduce the public’s trust in government measures to reduce the virus’ spread.

“Masks are an important prevention tool when we’re close to other people, especially indoors, but there’s really no reason to be wearing a mask when you’re outdoors and you’re not close to anyone,” Julia Marcus, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Harvard Medical School, told

The use of masks or cloth face coverings has been shown to control the spread of the virus, and the U.S CDC has been advocating for widespread use of masks since July. A study published in June in the journal Health Affairs found that policies in 15 states and Washington, D.C., requiring the use of face masks in public likely had prevented 200,000 COVID-19 cases by late May, though those measures required masks only where social distancing was difficult. Yet wearing masks has become politicized, with President Donald Trump mocking Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden in the pair’s first debate this fall for his use of a face covering.

Horsburgh called the president’s refusal to wear a mask “stupid,” saying that it’s a respectful thing to do for other people.

“Even if you got tested yesterday, other people don’t know that,” he said, “so you should be a respectful fellow human being and wear a mask to tell them that you’re being careful on their behalf.”

Mills’ executive order also requires business owners to prominently post signs about the face covering requirement, which was previously required only of large retail businesses. It allows businesses to deny service to those not wearing masks.

The state can suspend or revoke a business’ operating license if it doesn’t follow the order, Crete said. Violating an executive order is a Class E crime, punishable by up to 180 days imprisonment and a $1,000 fine. 

People who insist on entering businesses without face coverings after being warned might be charged with trespassing, Crete said.