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Outdoor dining in downtowns, along storefronts or overlooking rivers or harbors is expected to be more prevalent in Maine this summer as several cities look to provide options for restaurants and retailers that must contend with coronavirus restrictions.
Because the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic stands in the way of many businesses reopening as normal, eateries and retailers are hoping to expand operations outside to attract customers who may be wary of exposure to the disease.
Some cities plan to use curbside parking, traffic lanes or shut down entire streets to traffic as outdoor dining areas to allow restaurants to serve customers in the open air, where diners can eat further away from each other. Some towns could relax rules that would allow retailers to sell merchandise outside.
Augusta, Bangor, Belfast, Bar Harbor, Ellsworth, Portland and Rockland are among places in Maine that have plans in the works.
Bangor City Councilor Ben Sprague said Wednesday that city officials are working on a plan that would make it easier for restaurants or shops to conduct business on downtown sidewalks or parks, while making sure walkways remain compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The city is considering closing some traffic lanes to allow dining tables or store displays to be set up next to sidewalks.
“Once COVID-19 passes, some of these changes might remain in place,” Sprague said, which could help add to downtown Bangor’s revitalization. “Our goal is to be supportive of our small businesses.”
Beginning Friday, Belfast will allow restaurateurs and retailers to operate in public parking spots, green spaces and some other downtown sites. Restaurants and retailers will be allowed to erect tents in parking spaces in front of their business through Indigenous Peoples Day in October.
The initiative is dubbed “Curbside Belfast.”
“This is exciting,” Councilor Mary Mortier said. “I talked to several people who said they would not be comfortable going to a restaurant and eating indoors, but this is a game-changer for them.”
In Portland, where many restaurants already offer sidewalk dining, city officials will close off Dana, Exchange, Milk and Wharf streets to vehicles so diners can dine at outdoor tables, according to WGME.
And Bar Harbor officials are considering a plan to construct dining areas in public parking lots and some parks among other downtown sites.
Though the idea may seem like a no-brainer to some, Bar Harbor Police Chief James Willis said the logistics of setting up outdoor dining areas in public areas is not straightforward. The plans must adhere to disability accessibility laws, state liquor regulations and noise ordinances, he said.
Eben Salvatore, local operations manager for Bar Harbor Resorts and chairman of the town board that keeps tabs on parking issues, said some also voiced specific objections to closing portions of the city’s streets to vehicles.
“The flexibility of this [plan] is the key,” Salvatore said. “I’m convinced doing nothing is the worst thing to do.”
The council is expected to consider a more specific plan next month.
Officials in Ellsworth are developing a plan too, that could permit sidewalk dining or tables in private parking lots, according to Janna Richards, the city’s economic development director.
Options include possibly blocking off a section of Franklin Street in front of City Hall, where the Taste of Ellsworth festival is held each year, for use as an outdoor dining area for a few downtown restaurants.
In Rockland, city officials were expected to review a proposal Wednesday that initially called for closing down Main Street all of next month, but now could be scaled back to one or more weekends.
BDN writers Abigail Curtis and Lauren Abbate contributed to this report.
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