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TOPSHAM, Maine — Just after noon on Monday, roughly a dozen people had sat down to eat lunch inside the Fairground Cafe. Almost all of them were seniors. None wore masks. For Perry Leavitt, the restaurant’s owner, the day was a long time coming.
The last two months since the state ordered restaurants closed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus have “been rough financially,” he said. Leavitt estimated that revenue from curbside takeout was about 5 percent of the business he normally did.
Topsham was on one side of a line that looks arbitrary in the highly connected communities. Restaurants were cleared to open for limited dine-in service there on Monday because the town sits in Sagadahoc County. Some regulars at Fairground Cafe were comforted by the chance to dine at their old standby, but there was no immediate surge at local restaurants.
Brunswick is across the Androscoggin River in Cumberland County, one of four counties that must wait until June 1 to open. Leavitt figured the divide must be frustrating for Brunswick neighbors still limited to delivery and takeout.
“It was frustrating for me when I saw other states open,” he said.
A mile away, Michael Kinee was busy juggling sandwich orders from a makeshift to-go counter installed in the doorway of Big Top Deli. The popular Brunswick eatery could not yet reopen to dine-in traffic, but customers didn’t mind. With sanitizer installed on the door, Big Top Deli’s operation was touch-free.
“I think we’re just a Brunswick landmark and people want to support us,” Kinee said.
Gerard Poliquin, a retired former health care worker at Midcoast Hospital, was comfortable eating a lunch of baked haddock at Fairground Cafe on Monday. He typically dines there a couple times a week, and said it was good to be back.
Poliquin worries that the separate rules could “create a divide” between the two towns, worsening the economy of nearby Brunswick. He cited three main street Brunswick businesses that have already closed as a result of the virus.
To prepare for Monday, Leavitt and his staff did a deep clean of the restaurant, using rulers to determine which tables had to be removed to adhere to state guidelines mandating that parties stay six feet from one another. The additional cleaning supplies come at an extra cost, but Leavitt doesn’t mind, saying he wants “everybody safe.”
“I’m still concerned,” Leavitt said. “I have an 84-year-old mother. I’m worried about everything. But we’re doing everything possible.”
But reopening alone does not guarantee heavy traffic. Judy Fiterman, who lives across the street from Fairground Cafe, said that she’s gotten her food from a health food store that can impose tighter capacity restrictions than the supermarket. When she decides to eat out again, she’ll weigh safety factors like how far apart the tables are and whether there is good ventilation.
Some are getting more creative. From her back deck one evening last week, Fiterman saw four couples set up card tables on four corners of an intersection. Each brought out candles, wine glasses, bottles, and plates of food. Like that, they dined together — separately.
“They were having a cocktail party on four corners of the street,” she said. “In Topsham.”