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Mainers eager to dine out once again may flock to restaurants in rural areas allowed to reopen on May 18, but the new norm likely will raise some eyebrows and eateries will be limited due to health requirements.
Tables will have to be spaced six feet apart in restaurants, with an industry group official saying most will be limited to roughly a third of their capacity. Restaurants will also record one customer’s name and contact information for each dining party along with the name of the server at the table in case health officials need to trace an outbreak of the virus.
Those new requirements are part of a five-page checklist from the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development under a plan released by Gov. Janet Mills on Friday that eased restrictions on retailers and restaurants in 12 mostly rural counties and excluded Cumberland, York, Androscoggin and Penobscot.
Entry to a restaurant will be limited to one member of a party waiting inside until the table is ready. Dining tables will be six feet or more apart, and the total number of customers at a table is limited to eight.
Cloth linens need to be changed between customers, but disposable table covers are preferred. Menus also need to be disposable or plastic-covered and sanitized between uses.
Employees, who must stand six-feet apart, will need to wear cloth face coverings and sanitize their hands frequently. The state told restaurants to consider training employees in “de-escalation techniques” used to calm angry people.
Those policies are to be posted throughout restaurants and restroom waits could be longer because of occupancy limits.
A lot of work went into the restriction easing, Mills said, adding that her administration and hospitality industry groups arrived at a “reasonable balance between the economics of reopening and the desire to reopen to revive our economy and the overriding public health interest of the state.”
The sanitation guidelines would not be an issue for most restaurants, said Greg Dugal, a lobbyist for HospitalityMaine, an industry group representing restaurants, though he added that a requirement that tables be spaced six feet apart would likely mean restaurants are operating at between 30 and 35 percent of capacity.
Julie Barker, owner of Helen’s Restaurant in Machias, was pleased by Mills’ announcement, though she wished it had come sooner. She said her restaurant was “pretty much compliant” with the new health standards before it closed in March.
But Barker said she was still concerned about business prospects given the capacity limits. Her restaurant usually seats 130 people but would likely only host 50 instead for the time being. That means Barker will probably not be able to hire college students this summer as she typically does.
“This is going to be a very huge adjustment,” she said. “So while I’m very happy that we’re going to be able to open with modifications, I’m still very concerned about being able to pay my bills for the winter.”
Watch: Janet Mills shares changes for rural businesses