WATERVILLE, Maine — Gov. Janet Mills asked business leaders to encourage staff and customers to wear masks indoors as COVID-19 cases continue to rise across Maine, but stopped short of suggesting requirements as the omicron variant continues to surge here.
The Democratic governor spoke Thursday morning at a breakfast meeting of the Mid-Maine Chamber of Commerce, which represents a range of businesses in Kennebec and Somerset counties.
Her address came as Maine set another record for COVID-19 hospitalizations, with 436 patients hospitalized across the state as of Thursday. The surge following the arrival of the omicron variant has stretched the state’s already strained health care resources, and epidemiological models suggest the virus will continue to spread rapidly, further driving hospitalizations.
“I would ask you all to encourage your customers, clients and staff to wear masks indoors, and post information about where vaccinations are available,” Mills told the group.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently recommends mask-wearing in every Maine county due to high case rates, but Maine has not had a requirement since May 2021. Mills said earlier this month that she supported Portland’s decision to implement a citywide mask mandate but had no plans for a statewide requirement.
Several more liberal states, including New York and Delaware, have brought back masking or vaccination requirements as the highly contagious omicron strain has led to skyrocketing cases across the U.S.
But Mills, who is facing a challenge from former Gov. Paul LePage this year, has maintained her focus on encouraging vaccinations rather than returning to mitigation measures the state relied on before vaccines were widely available. LePage has attempted to draw a distinction from Mills by criticizing her vaccination mandate for health care workers, although he also floated a vaccine requirement for individuals receiving welfare assistance.
Maine has among the highest vaccination rates of any U.S. state, but rates continue to lag substantially in rural counties, with only 62 percent of eligible Somerset County residents fully vaccinated compared with 75 percent statewide. As of last week, unvaccinated people accounted for more than 70 percent of hospitalized patients across Maine’s two largest health care systems despite making up only a quarter of the state’s population.
In a brief interview Thursday, Mills noted her recent visit to Maine Medical Center in Portland, saying that “if people could see that suffering” among COVID-19 patients there, they would understand the importance of getting vaccinated.
“It really is in the hands of individuals,” she said. “We encourage every individual to get vaccinated and have their family vaccinated for their own sake.”