Bar owners and their employees got some bad news last weekend. One day before the scheduled reopening, they found out that they will have to stay closed as the state fights a surge of COVID-19 infections.

You can’t blame the bars for the new cases: They have been closed since March under the state’s public health emergency orders. But as long as cases are on the rise in Maine, Gov. Janet Mills had no choice but to postpone the expansion of the kinds of activities that have been shown to spread the virus in other states.

Maine has been one of the safest states throughout this pandemic. Our numbers are still relatively low, but cases are surging nationally and we should not act as if Maine is immune. Last week, we had our first ever day in which more than 100 people tested positive for coronavirus, and the number of active cases and people hospitalized with COVID are up dramatically. Even though we are testing more people than ever, the rate of positive tests has doubled in just a couple of weeks.

On Sunday, Mills announced four measures the state would take to to fight the virus. She extended the period in which cities and towns can apply for state aid for local public health programs. She lowered the limit for indoor gatherings from 100 people to 50. She reinstated the requirement for residents of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut to have a negative test or undergo a 14-day quarantine to visit Maine.

And Mills put off opening the bars, which had been scheduled to welcome patrons back Monday.

Given what we know about the way that COVID spreads, bars present specific risks that we don’t need in a time when cases are on the rise.

Packing people into indoor spaces, taking their masks off to drink and talking in loud voices, are perfect conditions to spread an airborne virus. Even if patrons and staff start with the best intentions, alcohol has a way of lowering inhibitions, making it less likely that everyone will follow the rules. States like Florida and Arizona, which opened their bars too quickly this summer, paid the price with explosive infection rates.

It’s important for a state like Maine keep its low numbers low. The virus is everywhere by now, and every public gathering is a potential super-spreader event. Until we get a vaccine and it’s in wide use, the only way we can minimize sickness, economic disruption and avoidable death is by limiting the opportunities for people to infect each other.

The bar owners need help to stay in business during this pandemic. Unfortunately, a bill that would have provided economic assistance to small businesses has stalled in Washington. After Election Day, getting that relief bill passed should be the top priority for Congress.

But a too-hasty reopening won’t help anyone. The economy can’t recover unless the coronavirus is under control. For now, it’s best to keep the bars closed.

Reprinted with permission from The Portland Press Herald.