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BETHEL, Maine — The co-owner of Sunday River Brewing Co. in Bethel who defied state orders by opening his doors to diners on Friday afternoon has lost his state health and liquor licenses, he said.
Restaurants must obtain state health licenses to legally serve food.
More than 150 people came to Sunday River Brewing Co. in Bethel on Friday afternoon after co-owner Rick Savage announced Thursday night that he would reopen in defiance of state orders meant to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
After learning that he’d lost the licenses around 4:30 p.m., Savage initially said he planned to keep operating the restaurant and just pay the daily fines that he would face. However, later in the evening, Sunday River Brewing Co. posted a Facebook post stating that the restaurant would be closed until further notice.
Watch: Rick Savage on losing his health and liquor licenses
Frustration with the state’s coronavirus-related business restrictions has been growing in some circles, but the restaurant’s deliberate act of disobedience appeared to be the clearest example yet of those tensions boiling over in Maine.
Although the restaurant initially said it would open at 4 p.m., it started serving food after people showed up around noon in defiance of a March order from Gov. Janet Mills that barred dine-in restaurant service.
By 4:30 p.m., the crowd of diners lined up around the building on Route 2 had grown to a peak of around 150. By 6 p.m., the restaurant had served roughly 250 people, according to an employee.
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Savage, who announced the restaurant’s opening on Fox News on Thursday night while criticizing the Democratic governor and reading her cellphone number on the air, said that he was not worried some of the diners coming from areas with more documented coronavirus cases would spread it in his restaurant.
That was partly because he was enforcing distancing guidelines that other businesses have adopted during the pandemic. If Home Depot, Lowes and Walmart “can do 6-foot spacing and be open,” then his restaurant could as well, he said.
“I really don’t believe it. I don’t believe it at this point,” he said, when asked if it might be dangerous to let those diners into the restaurant. “I’m not a medical expert. I serve food, you know.”
As for the many diners standing less than 6 feet from each other while waiting for a seat, he said, “I can’t tell them where to stand and what to do. We’re America. If they want to isolate, they can isolate.”
Violating orders made under the governor’s emergency powers are punishable as a misdemeanor crime and the deputy director of the state’s liquor regulator said Savage could face a penalty if he opened to dine-in customers.
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However, Savage earlier said that he did not think he would lose his liquor license because he decided against serving booze on Friday. He violated the state’s orders with the hope that other businesses would decide to join him and so that he could support his 65 employees, he said.
In general, there appears to be support for the restrictions Mills has put in place. She has received high polling marks for the state’s response to the pandemic, with 72 percent of Mainers saying they somewhat or strongly approve of her handling of the outbreak in a national survey released this week by researchers from Northeastern, Harvard and Rutgers universities.
But the hospitality industry has hammered a plan released by Mills this week that would limit restaurants and hotels into the summer. The crowd that turned out to Bethel on Friday afternoon was also vehemently opposed.
Watch: Why one woman came to Sunday River Brewing Co.
At one point, diners waiting outside Sunday River Brewing Co. gave Savage a round of applause when he emerged from the restaurant. In interviews, some said they had come to support his operation because they disagreed with Mills’ orders and felt they would be too onerous for the tourism industry.
The fact that some of them were more elderly and at-risk from the harmful effects of the coronavirus did not deter them.
“This is Vacationland,” said Dick Hill, 78, who had driven two hours from his home in Bath after seeing Savage on Fox News. “If she doesn’t let hotels and restaurants open, we’re going to be crushed.”
Most of the cars in the parking lot Friday afternoon were from Maine, but a handful had plates from other states such as Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey and Florida.
Just after they had reached the front of the line, Tom Bayley, 60, and his 34-year-old son Gaelan expressed similar frustrations about Mills’ orders and said they had come to the restaurant to show solidarity.
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The Bayleys run a family campground with 750 sites in Scarborough, they said, and they worry that most out-of-state families won’t be able to justify taking a vacation when those orders call for two weeks of quarantine in Maine. They also said it will be possible for businesses such as theirs to responsibly open without contributing to the health crisis.
“It’s directly hitting our business,” Gaelen Bayley said.
Some of the diners wore red hats supporting President Donald Trump featuring his “Make America Great Again” slogan. But others in the town on Friday afternoon were less pleased with the diners’ choices.
“Make America stupid again!” one woman yelled out the window of a passing car.
Watch: The line at Sunday River Brewing Co. on Friday