The Grand Lodge of Masons in Maine building in Holden is shown in this 2015 photo. Credit: Courtesy of Benjamin Breadmore

The Grand Lodge of Maine Masons had its first normal annual meeting in two years last week. A few days later, several attendees had tested positive for COVID-19.

The group’s annual communication, at which Masons elect new leaders and conduct business with every lodge in the state, took place in Bar Harbor on May 3.

Within five days, newly elected Grand Mason Dan Bartlett started hearing from people who tested positive. He figures about 12 have reached out to him but he thinks more of the 200 attendees are probably sick.

These kinds of outbreaks were a main focus of attention early in the pandemic, when states ramped up contact tracing operations. But they were overwhelmed and rendered less effective during a winter omicron surge that drove more less-severe cases in vaccinated people.

Risk of serious illness remains lower now because of those factors, but the Masonic event shows how gatherings are still a threat after a return to indoor events with the onus more on the public to test and track cases of the virus.

“I don’t think it’s going to go away at all,” said Peter Millard, an epidemiologist who previously worked for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “We’re going to continue to see breakthrough cases.”

The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention no longer has firm guidelines on events beyond encouraging masks indoors in counties where hospitalizations are high, mirroring federal recommendations. Those figures have been ticking up in recent weeks as the most recent version of the omicron variant circulates in Maine and the U.S.

Masonic events in prior pandemic years had been limited to just a few members to conduct business while following state restrictions that limited gatherings early in the pandemic.

The pandemic is still a concern for the Masons because members tend to be older, Bartlett said. The organization did not require masks or vaccines to attend, but it urged members to take precautions that made them comfortable. It followed the most recent CDC guidelines and does not plan to deviate from them.

“We regret that any of our members might end up with COVID,” Bartlett said.

The state has about 50 people still dedicated to case and outbreak investigations after ending contact tracing in February on the heels of the surge, said Robert Long, a Maine CDC spokesperson.

The state was not conducting an outbreak investigation related to the Masons event as of Thursday and Long said he would not be able to provide a list of state-monitored outbreaks until the weekend, recommending people get vaccinated if they are not and to ask their doctor to prescribe therapeutics if they do get sick.

Efforts to create vaccines specifically for variants may eventually tamp down the spread of the virus, Millard said. But he thought it was likely the virus will continue to be a risk of life going forward without restrictions. At the same time, less-severe strains, immunity from so many people getting the virus and vaccinations mean the risk of serious illness is lower than before.

“Because people are not going to take precautions forever, [the virus] is just fading into the background as another respiratory illness,” he said.