Janet Mills, a woman with short blonde hair in a blue blazer, speaks at a podium. Nirav Shah, a man in a black blazer and short black hair, stands in the back
Gov. Janet Mills speaks at a news conference at the Maine State House on March 12, 2020, in Augusta. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, is at right. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

The day before Maine announced it would no longer recommend schools require masks, its top disease expert warned the state was not quite ready to mirror new federal guidelines.

Nirav Shah, the director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, told Maine Public on Tuesday the state would look at school outbreaks and absenteeism through next week to see how February vacation would affect cases.

While Maine has been seeing steady declines in recent weeks, he said more time was needed to see if trends would hold, adding that the federal government was “a bit too late” to recommend masks early in the pandemic and has been “a bit too hasty” to drop them.

“I want to make sure that we’re being responsive,” he said. “I also want to make sure that we’re moving at the right pace to be protective and make sure that we don’t cause a situation that gets worse.”

Gov. Janet Mills on Wednesday announced that masking in schools and day cares would no longer be recommended by the state on March 9. Shah’s office insists he and the governor were united on a shift that was part of a national messaging shift that is putting a main focus on returning to normalcy in schools.

“Maine people should make decisions about masks that they believe are in the best interest of their health while being considerate of those around them,” the governor said Wednesday.

It marks another phase of pandemic management. The early part was defined by mandates that were at first widely adopted but became politically unpalatable. Maine has typically adopted federal recommendations quickly throughout the pandemic. Last summer, they took the place of past restrictions. Federal and state governments are now withdrawing more, putting the onus on communities and individuals to make key decisions.

The biggest effects are on school districts, which have not been under a state mask mandate since the middle of last year. Pressure has built in many areas that have left requirements in effect. Steven Bailey, executive director of the Maine School Management Association, said he began talks with state officials around how to wind guidelines down since Christmastime.

Without them, school boards and superintendents will now use their own data. As an example, Brewer rescinded its mask mandate last week. Superintendent Gregg Palmer said he took the updated guidelines as a sign that his system was making the right move.

“Everybody is trying to do the best thing,” Bailey said.

Notable in a Wednesday news release from Mills’ office was the lack of wholesale adoption of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s new masking recommendation, which lean more on county hospitalizations and still encourage vulnerable people to mask in medium-risk areas. The Maine CDC welcomed the recommendations, but said they should be just one of the public’s considerations of whether to mask.

The governor’s change was in line with Shah’s statements on Tuesday, said Maine CDC spokesperson Robert Long. He added that the phase-out date of next Wednesday allows health officials the necessary time to evaluate trends.

He also pointed to a caveat tucked in at the bottom of the release: If Maine sees its hospital capacity threatened again or a concerning variant on the rise, new recommendations may be given. The state never revived old restrictions after ending a state of emergency last summer, even as cases spiked beyond previous levels in the winter.

“Dr. Shah endorses and supports the revision,” Long said.

Republicans juxtaposed Shah’s comments with Mills’ move. Jason Savage, the executive director of the state party, said the Democratic governor was “scrambling to limit the political damage” of past mandates ahead of a 2022 race with former Gov. Paul LePage. While the Republican has assailed Mills’ policies, Maine has the fourth-lowest case and death rates among states throughout the pandemic, according to a New York Times tracker.

Many welcome the influence of political figures in changing the national track on the virus. Early in the pandemic, there was “complete deference to public health,” said Jeremy Fischer, a former Democratic state representative, lawyer and Yarmouth school board member.

“It seems like [Mills] is now recognizing there are other impacts beyond the health side of things, such as the economy, children’s mental health and workforce issues,” he said.

But the average Mainer should interpret the state’s message to mean communities should consider how strongly the virus is circulating before getting rid of masks, said Robert Horsburgh, an epidemiology professor at Boston University. He cautioned against viewing the downslope in cases as the end of protective measures.

“It may not be a permanent thing and may not be the right thing for every community,” he said.

BDN writer Lia Russell contributed to this report.