Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Nirav Shah speaks at his final, regular pandemic press briefing in Augusta on June 30, 2021. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

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QUOTE OF THE DAY: “Twenty years ago these towns had mills and businesses that no longer exist. With businesses, there were local people who would serve in the fire department and ambulances who would be able to leave work and respond to calls. It’s simply not that way any longer,” said Howland Fire Chief Josh McNally, whose department in a town of just over 1,200 people is responsible for protecting half a dozen surrounding communities.

What we’re watching today

New federal guidance puts two Maine counties in a strange spot on masks. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended Tuesday that people in counties with higher COVID-19 case rates resume wearing face coverings indoors regardless of vaccination status. In Maine, that group includes York and Piscataquis counties.

Gov. Janet Mills said in a Monday statement that her administration was reviewing the face covering guidance and would be announcing “what changes, if any” the state would be making today. With the end of the state of emergency less than a month ago, that could look a lot like pre-emergency order Maine, with the governor suspending out-of-state work travel for employees and recommending large indoor gatherings be postponed.

Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Nirav Shah said Tuesday that people should consider resuming mask-wearing, especially in Piscataquis and York counties. But that remains just a recommendation for now without Mills’ emergency powers. He was slightly stronger on wearing masks in schools, saying everyone should wear them regardless of vaccination status, and said you should get tested if you are not feeling well.

It shows the challenges of being one of the states that saw early success with vaccination rates. Maine and several other New England states lifted their states of emergency with the arrival of summer because they saw some of the better vaccination rates in the country. Only two New England states, Rhode Island and Connecticut, still have states of emergency, and those are slated to expire next week and September, respectively.

The question could become less relevant if COVID-19 cases in Maine declined just slightly — both Piscataquis and York counties are only slightly over the U.S. CDC threshold at which point masking becomes recommended. But infections have trended in the wrong direction over the past few weeks and remain higher here than they were last summer.

So far, it looks like the onus will shift to the public. Without mask mandates, health officials have been banking on people following guidelines and masking if unvaccinated. Some are likely to follow the CDC’s advice, and businesses could resume requiring face coverings for employees or customers. But that could be less likely in a place like Piscataquis County, where county commissioners passed a resolution earlier this year opposing the state mask mandate then.

The Maine politics top 3

— “GOP lawmaker pushes Maine election ‘audit’ at Belfast event put on by conspiracy theorist,” Jessica Piper and Lauren Abbate, Bangor Daily News: “Attendees also collected signatures Tuesday for a proposed audit of the 2020 election in Maine, mirroring efforts in states such as Arizona, although no such legal mechanism exists and there is no evidence of significant voter fraud or election irregularities here or nationally. Republican lawmakers across the country have pushed similar efforts in the past several months in response to former President Donald Trump’s 2020 loss to President Joe Biden.”

— “Maine doesn’t know which of its 715 schools lack fire sprinklers,” Hannah Catlin, BDN: “School fires are most likely to happen during the day and during the school year, when buildings are at peak occupancy, the National Fire Prevention Agency found. But with the prohibitive cost of fire suppression and no broad mandate to fix all educational buildings with such systems, Maine’s aging schools remain vulnerable.”

— “Men involved in armed standoff who were on the way to Maine to sue state police, judge,” The Associated Press: “A spokesperson for the [Massachusetts State Police] in an email said because the agency had not seen the suit, it could not comment on the specific allegations, but said ‘the defendants were arrested because — and only because — they broke the law and created a clear public safety risk.’”

Today’s Daily Brief was written by Caitlin Andrews and Jessica Piper. If you’re reading this on the BDN’s website or were forwarded it, you can sign up to have it delivered to your inbox every weekday morning here.

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