In this May 30, 2021, file photo, a group of tourists walk past an empty mask dispenser after getting treats at an ice cream shop in Bar Harbor. Credit: Bill Trotter / BDN

Gov. Janet Mills announced Wednesday that Maine will follow updated federal guidance on masks, recommending the use of face coverings regardless of vaccination status in places where COVID-19 transmission is higher.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is recommending universal masking in counties that are seeing substantial virus transmission, defined as 50 new virus cases per 100,000 people in the past week. It comes nearly two months after Maine lifted its mask requirement for vaccinated people, although unvaccinated people were still recommended to use face coverings.

The policy is also a change from two months ago, when the federal and state governments said vaccinated people no longer needed to wear masks indoors, and comes as infections have been rising both in Maine and nationwide. Here’s what you need to know.

Why is this happening?

The updated federal recommendations follow several weeks of increasing virus cases. U.S. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said Tuesday that the agency is concerned about the more contagious delta variant and cited worries about small but growing numbers of “breakthrough” cases among fully vaccinated people.

In Maine, the seven-day average of new cases has more than tripled over the past few weeks, with the delta variant making up an increasing share of cases. Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Nirav Shah said Wednesday that masks could help prevent the spread of COVID-19 in limited cases in which even vaccinated people may transmit the virus.

“By masking up in indoor public settings in places where there’s a lot of virus, even though you’re vaccinated, you reduce that risk of accidentally inadvertently transmitting the virus to vulnerable people around you, a risk that, because of the delta variant, we fear may be growing,” Shah said.

Where should I wear a mask right now?

Waldo County is the only one currently above the U.S. CDC’s threshold of 50 weekly cases per 100,000 people right now, according to state and federal data. York, Piscataquis and Aroostook counties are all slightly under that threshold.

State officials highlighted Piscataquis and York after they were both listed as counties with significant transmission in the U.S. CDC’s weekly state report, released on Tuesday. But given the low population of several of Maine’s counties, those numbers can change quickly. After the Maine CDC and the U.S. CDC updated data on Wednesday, Waldo County appeared to exceed the weekly threshold, while Piscatatquis and York counties dropped just under. 

Shah acknowledged the issue Wednesday, saying small fluctuations in the number of positive tests “can mean pretty big shifts when it comes to how these designations are made.” As of Wednesday, Waldo County is the only one officially below the U.S. CDC’s marker. That could change in the next few days, though.

Who is responsible for enforcing mask wearing?

Unlike earlier in the pandemic, when Mainers could report businesses that were violating COVID-19 protocols, there is no official enforcement mechanism because the new federal guidance consists only of recommendations, not requirements.

Previous face covering requirements for health care settings and public transportation, which stem from an earlier executive order from President Joe Biden, are still subject to stricter enforcement. Businesses also have the right to require customers and employees to wear masks, even though there is no government requirement.

Could Maine do more to strengthen mask requirements?

Throughout much of the pandemic, Mills mandated masking and other COVID-19 precautions via executive order. But that was only possible because Maine was under a state of emergency, which the Legislature voted in favor of in March 2020. But Mills ended the emergency as of June 30 and without those powers, Mills cannot reinstate a statewide mask mandate.

What does this mean for schools?

The U.S. CDC is recommending mask wearing in all K-12 schools, regardless of student or teacher vaccinations or the prevalence of the virus in the community. That is a change from earlier this month, when both state and federal guidance indicated that fully vaccinated teachers and students would no longer need to wear face coverings.

While Maine is going along with that recommendation, Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew indicated Wednesday that the ultimate decision on mask policies would fall to local school districts.

I am fully vaccinated. How worried should I be about breakthrough cases?

When it comes to breakthrough cases, two things can be true at once. First, the COVID-19 vaccines used in the U.S. are highly effective in preventing transmission of the virus as well as serious illness and death, including from the delta variant. Second, infections still happen among fully vaccinated people and will likely increase so long as the virus is broadly circulating.

Community transmission means every person is more likely to be exposed to the COVID-19. That is more dangerous for unvaccinated people. But when enough vaccinated people are repeatedly exposed to the virus, some will test positive. For that reason, health officials are continuing to recommend vaccinations as the best way to stop the spread of the virus.

“Vaccines remain the best tool we have to keep ourselves safe,” Shah said.