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Max Brody’s family-style eatery is not built for the social-distancing era. Spanning five small rooms in an 18th-century Buxton farmhouse, the only way he could keep dining parties six feet apart is to put one table in each room.
That is a main requirement of a state plan that will allow restaurants to reopen to dine-in customers across Maine as of June 1 for the first time since that was prohibited in mid-March due to the coronavirus. Many restaurants that had to adapt to all-takeout or delivery models are now crafting equally novel plans to reopen under strict health standards.
Sur Lie in Portland’s Old Port plans to stagger patrons’ arrival and departure times in five-minute intervals, selling meal kits and market baskets to supplement revenue. The upscale Jonathan’s Ogunquit will require waitstaff to wear white gloves with a uniform and is pricing out thermal cameras to record workers’ temperatures before and after each shift.
Those places are fancier than Buxton Common. Brody, the chef-owner, said his business is doing “about half the amount of business that we normally do” now. As he weighs whether to offer indoor seating when he is allowed to open next month, he plans to seat patrons on backyard picnic tables and sell boxed lunches to workers in a nearby industrial park.
Roughly 12 miles from downtown Portland, Brody’s business depends more on small-town locals than tourists. For that reason, he said the trust of customers is paramount.
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“People come in and inherently believe that they’re not going to be made sick,” Brody said. “It’s one of the few industries where people ingest your product.”
In a public health crisis, many restaurant owners are not seeking a path back to normalcy, but they are forging ways to evolve that may bring lasting change. They are wary of a spike of disease. They also fear that missing a vital summer season will destroy their livelihoods.
The state plan released by Gov. Janet Mills on Friday allows restaurants in 12 counties to reopen on May 18. Those in Androscoggin, Cumberland, Penobscot and York counties, where health officials have confirmed community spread of the virus, are able to open on June 1.
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Restaurants that reopen must adhere to a five-page checklist that requires distancing, masks for public-facing staff and sanitation standards. Waitstaff must also record one customer’s name and contact information per table in case the state needs to trace an outbreak of the virus.
An industry official said last week that the rules will generally limit restaurants to one-third of their capacities. But being able to open is no guarantee of great business. A survey by Morning Consult found that half of Americans are less likely than normal to eat at a restaurant. There have been several estimates that one-fifth or more of U.S. restaurants could close.
“I’d like nothing better than to have some french fries,” said Susan Smith, a teacher in Dover-Foxcroft. But she said she will wait until there is a widely available vaccine for the virus before she eats out again.
“I can’t imagine going this far and then blowing it at Five Guys,” Smith said.
Bars could reopen with plexiglass partitions between bartenders and patrons. Isaac MacDougal, a Portland bartender who runs Cocktail Mary on Munjoy Hill, sees the restrictions as necessary. But he wondered why anyone would want to come to a bar with plexiglass.
His bar is a one-man show, taking online preorders for signature cocktails and packaging them in sealed containers deliverable the following day. He charges $2 for packaging — which is state-regulated — which encourages customers to exchange them at the next order.
MacDougal doesn’t think people will be comfortable coming back to bars for a while. He also doesn’t necessarily think they should.
“I don’t know that I necessarily want people in my bar to feel safe because they’re going to make other people feel unsafe,” he said.
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The pandemic has turned a trend in Portland’s restaurant scene on its head. For the last 10 years, several aspiring chefs have operated food trucks in Portland neighborhoods as a way of building credibility on the way toward opening brick-and-mortar restaurants.
Highroller Lobster Co. launched as a food truck years ago before expanding into a high-volume tourist destination in the Old Port. It will be open for take-out next week, but co-owner Peter Jensen Bissell said “no one is comfortable” with opening it on June 1. Instead, Highroller will go back to its roots in a new lobster-red food truck.
Bissell doesn’t dispute the necessity of the safety measures, but he expressed frustration that the burden falls on small businesses, since landlords, insurers and lenders can still collect.
“We’ve had to stop our business, but this plan and this reaction to curb the virus has not limited any of the notoriously unscrupulous entities that businesses need to work with to survive from collecting,” he said.
Other restaurants have become more than restaurants. At The Good Table in Cape Elizabeth, owner Lisa Kostopolous has kept her 34-year-old restaurant alive selling bulk groceries including flour, yeast and toiletries, plus grill kits and breakfast boxes.
A once-expansive menu has been whittled down. Customers now favor core “take ‘n’ bake” items such as macaroni and cheese, spanakopita and cinnamon buns. If laws allow, Kostopolous wants to turn the parking lot into an old-fashioned carhop — minus a roller-skating staff — or a drive-in movie center.
“We’re building a new business,” she said.
Watch: Janet Mills outlines her plan to reopen