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Maine restaurateurs are facing yet another difficult business decision during the novel coronavirus pandemic: whether or not to reopen under a new plan that allows dine-in service in most counties starting May 18, two weeks ahead of the original plan and in time for the Memorial Day holiday.
The earlier schedule rolled out Friday by Gov. Janet Mills allows restaurants in 12 counties to reopen, except for Androscoggin, Cumberland, Penobscot and York, where there has been community spread of the virus.
Restaurants that reopen need to adhere to a five-page checklist from the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development. It includes physical distancing of people and tables, a limit of eight persons per table and keeping a record of one customer’s name and contact information for each dining party along with the name of the server in case health officials need to trace a virus outbreak. The distancing requirements could cut the seating by half or even two-thirds of the number before the pandemic.
Steve Hewins, president and CEO of HospitalityMaine, an industry group representing restaurants, hotels and inns, said he has fielded dozens of calls from concerned restaurants since the governor announced the plan Friday.
He said most restaurants are still trying to decide whether to open or to hold off.
“The checklist will be challenging to implement but it is a necessary first step,” he said. “I am hopeful that these restrictions will be short-lived.”
Hewins said he is working closely with the Mills administration to possibly accelerate the current June 1 opening date for restaurants in the other four counties.
Hewins said some restaurants might not open on May 18 for a variety of reasons, and others may never reopen.
“The ultimate challenge will be allaying public fears by safely operating our restaurants,” he said.
Alissa Leonard, manager of Cafe Nomad, a 50-seat restaurant in the Oxford County town of Norway, said she doesn’t plan to open the restaurant early out of safety concerns.
“We’re an open-kitchen restaurant, so we’re not likely to let folks come in,” she said. Right now the restaurant is selling curbside, but it is considering opening a back patio with seating.
Leonard said she won’t reopen until she feels comfortable enough that it’s safe for all of the employees. She doesn’t mind the idea of taking customer information so that she could assist health officials if the virus spreads.
“I don’t feel comfortable that there’s enough testing available,” she said. “Until we can have adequate testing and tracing at a moment’s notice, I’m not going to risk having people come into the restaurant.”
Codie Montigny, who co-owns Sylvia’s Cafe in Ellsworth with her husband Taylor, said she’s excited and happy to rehire the 14 employees who she had to lay off and “do what we do.” She plans to reopen May 18.
“I think people are starting to go out a little more. We have regular customers who come every morning for takeout. Some of them even have breakfast in their cars alongside the other cars,” she said.
The Hancock County restaurant has been selling takeout breakfast and lunch, but Montigny said it’s been really tough to run a business with 25 percent of the normal income.
Sylvia’s, which seats 77, probably will only be able to allow 22 customers in at a time under the checklist rules. Montigny still is measuring the restaurant, which she describes as “cozy,” to get optimal seating and to meet the distancing requirements.
“The checklist is going to create some challenges, especially where we typically serve breakfast and you don’t make reservations for breakfast,” she said. “So we’re going to have a lot of challenges as far as that goes and the tracing of customers. But we will do everything we can to the best of our abilities.”
Kate Williamson, general manager of the Gingerbread House restaurant in Oquossoc, plans to open for in-house dining for the Memorial Day weekend, but also sees challenges in some of the checklist requirements.
With three employees now, she plans to hire another 10 soon as she restarts with takeout business for Mother’s Day this Sunday, the first time the restaurant will be open since March 22. The restaurant is in a former house in the Rangeley Lakes Region of Franklin County.
“We’ve been working over the last seven weeks or so to make sure that all of our safety and cleaning sanitizing protocols are in place and that we have staff,” she said. “We’re looking forward to seeing our customers again.”
She expects seating capacity to be cut in half. Without the normal business volume, she plans to manage expenses by not hiring the full number of employees she usually has, by limiting menu choices and by cutting hours of operation.
One concern she expressed is the checklist’s limit of eight customers per table.
“I have tables of 15 and 20 people in families all the time,” she said. “They’re coming together as a unit so it would be strange to me to not be able to sit them together.”
The Gingerbread House also gets a lot of regular customers who like to go over to each others’ tables and greet each other.
“We’re going to do everything we can to be safe and make people feel as comfortable as possible,” she said.
Leonard of Cafe Nomad faces similar challenges in that the cafe has a lot of regular customers who come to gather and talk.
“They’re here not necessarily only for the food and coffee,” she said. “We’re trying to find out how we actually can serve the community now that we can’t do the primary thing we used to do as a gathering place.”
Watch: Janet Mills outlines her plan to reopen