A sign equates mask wearing with caring for neighbors in downtown Portland on Tuesday Dec. 8, 2020. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Maine’s coronavirus-related restrictions are mostly in line with other New England states as governors across the region grapple with rising cases, while an expert warns that containing the virus will only get more difficult if cases continue to escalate.

After Maine did not see more than 100 daily cases of the virus until late October, the state saw a record 425 new cases on Monday. The surge comes as virus conditions have worsened across the country, with only Vermont and Hawaii seeing lower case rates than Maine over the past week, according to a New York Times tracker.

Gov. Janet Mills has largely eschewed reinstating business restrictions from earlier in the pandemic, pointing to a lack of federal aid to assist businesses and workers. Other governors have generally followed similar paths, though some New England states, most of which have higher case counts than Maine, have done more to limit gatherings as the virus has surged.

Among states in the region, Maine maintains higher gathering limits, with groups of as many as 50 people permitted to congregate indoors and 100 people outdoors. That stands in contrast to Vermont and Rhode Island, both of which have banned gatherings of separate households outright. Massachusetts and Connecticut have limited indoor gatherings to 10 people while New Hampshire has no gathering limits.

All New England states except New Hampshire have also restricted restaurant capacity and kept bars closed for indoor dining, though capacity limits differ slightly by state. Mills pushed back reopening bars for indoor seating in early November as coronavirus cases surged, though the change affected relatively few establishments. Only 59 establishments across the state are licensed as bars, while more than 370 are licensed as combined restaurants and bars that were allowed to reopen indoor seating over the summer, according to state liquor license data.

New Hampshire is also the only state in the region with no curfew. Compared to other states, Maine’s curfew order is earlier — 9 p.m. rather than 10 p.m. — but also less stringent, covering only businesses while Massachusetts and Connecticut ask residents to stay home after 10 p.m.

Maine’s curfew received some pushback from restaurants, with industry leaders questioning why dining after 9 p.m. was different from earlier in the day. Experts have said while curfews may limit late crowds, they could also lead people to congregate in private instead.

Robert Horsburgh, an epidemiology professor at Boston University, said cutting back on settings where people do not wear masks, such as indoor dining, is “really the only option” to try to reduce transmission of the virus now that case levels have overwhelmed contact tracing systems. But he acknowledged that such restrictions posed political and economic challenges.

“I hope that Congress is quickly going to pass some sort of legislation, because the problem is, if you cut back the economy, then a lot of people don’t have any money, they don’t have any jobs, and then you have a different problem,” Horsburgh said.

Like Mills, other New England governors have been reluctant to impose business closures as the virus has worsened. Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker tightened capacity limits at a range of establishments on Tuesday, but only called for the closure of indoor performance venues. He also announced that restaurant patrons would be required to wear face coverings at all times when not eating, something Maine already requires.

Horsburgh said precautions that keep case levels in Maine where they are now would be easier than stopping the virus if cases continue to rise.

“It doesn’t just creep up and creep up, it creeps up and then it goes faster and faster, that’s the natural history of this sort of thing,” he said. “So we need to get on it now, because it’ll be four times as hard to deal with next week.”

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