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Restaurants readying to emerge from Maine’s coronavirus-related economic shutdown are looking for ways to use outdoor seating to make up for limited indoor capacities, though the effects will depend on how flexible municipalities are in allowing them to use public space.
Some of Maine’s largest cities are beginning to draft plans that would close streets or allow further access to sidewalks to help businesses operate, but between inclement weather, a need to follow safety guidelines and maintaining accessibility standards, restaurants that have reinvented their businesses already have a lot to consider before going outside.
“Obviously it’s Maine, it’s May and the weather can be iffy,” said Steve Hewins, the president and CEO of HospitalityMaine, an advocacy group for restaurants and hotels. “But I think people are in support of trying to find creative ways to serve outside.”
Restaurants in 12 mostly rural counties will be allowed to open for limited dine-in service on Monday, while restaurants in Cumberland, Penobscot, York and Androscoggin counties will follow on June 1 under a plan released on Friday by Gov. Janet Mills to speed up reopening. Eateries have been closed to dine-in customers in Maine since mid-March.
The restaurants that open once restrictions lift must follow safety and distancing guidelines that include keeping dining parties 6 feet away from each other. Those limits may keep most restaurants to about a third of their normal indoor capacities, HospitalityMaine has said.
The governor’s plan also allows outdoor dining. Cities are looking to jumpstart businesses — particularly in downtown areas — by providing access to more space. It is seen as far safer than allowing indoor dining. A recent study from China that examined 320 outbreaks of the coronavirus traced only one to an outdoor space.
In Rockland, city officials approved closing Main Street to vehicle traffic in June to allow restaurants and shops to use sidewalk space, though it is not yet clear if the closure will be for the entire month or just on weekends. It was the first such plan to win approval in Maine.
Bangor and Portland are also considering giving restaurants more sidewalk and public space for seating. Portland officials said Tuesday that they are considering closing six downtown streets to allow restaurants and retail shops to extend onto sidewalks and into the street.
This week in Augusta, councilors will be discussing the possibility of partially closing Front Street along the Kennebec River and allowing restaurants to set up tables on sidewalks and in parking spaces. But Keith Luke, Augusta’s economic development director, said the city wants to avoid a scenario where crowds are flocking en masse to newly created outdoor spaces.
“We’re interested in finding a literal healthy balance in allowing restaurants to operate and for people to have outdoor dining experiences, but not to facilitate a superspreader event in our community,” Luke said.
While cities and towns have the flexibility to bend the rules when it comes to businesses operating on sidewalks, Luke said there is no flexibility when it comes to compliance with the federal Americans With Disabilities Act, which requires maintaining three feet of unobstructed space for passage on sidewalks and maintaining access to curb cutouts and crosswalks. It is largely up to municipalities to ensure that businesses are adhering to ADA guidelines.
“I think there is a way to get everyone’s needs met without sacrificing access without excluding individuals from participating in activities within their town,” said Sara Squires, the group’s public policy director.
Hewins said the spacing required for compliance with virus safety guidelines will likely mitigate some of the ADA compliance issues, but added it’s something businesses will have to address with their outdoor space. Restaurants that have large parking lots or existing outdoor spaces will likely have an easier time expanding outdoor seating, according to Hewins.
“There are cities that have very spacious sidewalks and there are cities that have very minimal sidewalks,” Luke said. “Those that have minimal sidewalks or non-ADA-compliant sidewalks are going to have a very difficult time creating dining areas.”
As Rockland mulls closing Main Street, Jenn Rockwell, who owns the restaurant Ada’s Kitchen and the neighboring business Main Street Markets, said she supports a partial closure of Main Street, perhaps on weekends only. While Ada’s Kitchen has an existing patio space, Rockwell said she would love to add some tables to the sidewalk in front of her restaurant and market.
In January, Rockwell opened a second Ada’s Kitchen location in Portland that is a take-out restaurant and market. If Portland moves to allow sidewalk dining, Rockwell said she would pursue setting up an outdoor dining area.
Since restaurants were forced to close to dine-in service in March, Rockwell, like most Maine restaurant owners, has had to completely re-envision her business. Her restaurants have moved to delivery of meals and groceries, plus curbside pickup. Two weeks ago, they began offering cocktails to go.
With expanded outdoor dining being among the next round of changes for Maine restaurants due to the virus, Rockwell said she will adapt to that as well because figuring out how to make her restaurants accessible has been a fun while taxing challenge.
“We now have delivery in Rockland, which we never dreamed of two months ago. We have home delivery for groceries. We have to-go cocktails. I mean, who would have thought,” Rockwell said. “It’s been a really fun ride to be on to kind of see that through, even though it was stressful.”
Watch: Janet Mills outlines her plan to reopen