Click here for the latest coronavirus news, which the BDN has made free for the public. You can support our critical reporting on the coronavirus by purchasing a digital subscription or donating directly to the newsroom.
Gov. Janet Mills delayed reopenings of indoor dining in three of Maine’s most populous counties on Wednesday, but another official softened the news with details of how those restaurants can expand outdoor seating by using tents or spaces only accessible through the restaurant.
Mills cited increased hospitalizations for delaying dine-in service in Cumberland, York and Androscoggin counties beyond a previously scheduled reopening date of June 1. Steve Hewins, president of HospitalityMaine, an industry group, said the news was disappointing.
But the situation may not be as restrictive as it appears. Commissioner Heather Johnson of the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development told business leaders in an online meeting on Wednesday how restaurants could expand current takeout or delivery service with outdoor additions.
— The numbers: No more than 50 people can be in a room or outdoor seating area at a time, and each party must be six feet from others. The guidance encourages owners to have a back-up plan for outdoor seating that adheres to physical distance requirements in case of inclement weather.
— Passing through: Johnson said customers can still walk through restaurants and use indoor restrooms. Some restaurants, like the Frog & Turtle in Westbrook, have outdoor decks with seating areas that are only accessible by passing through the interior of the restaurant. They would be allowed to let guests inside to access those spaces, but Frog & Turtle owner Guy Cote wondered on Wednesday whether the state would allow guests to move inside if it rained in the middle of service.
— Tents: Johnson said it is fine for restaurants to set up a tent outside. That’s an option for one owner who told her he had bought extra food in anticipation of reopening inside on June 1. The approval process to put up a tent is faster than to build an extra patio. Guidance for tents will be on the department’s website this evening, including whether or not tents will need to have sides.
— Faster licensing: The state agencies that license restaurants have expedited processing for additional outdoor capacity, Johnson said. More details are forthcoming in checklists released on Wednesday.
– Masks: Businesses do not have to enforce whether or not a patron wears a mask or face covering, Johnson said. However, owners can refuse service to customers who don’t wear a mask. The state’s executive order states customers should wear cloth face coverings when in a food service facility where social distancing is difficult, for example, waiting in line for pickup, entering or exiting or walking to the restrooms. Customers do not need to wear face coverings when seated at the table.
— Rooftop dining: Rooftops and second-floor decks can add seats. Becky’s Diner in Portland is among those considering moving upstairs and into the parking lot.
— Fast food: Fast-food restaurants and ice cream stands will not have to keep a log of customers because their visit is short. However, restaurants still must keep a name and phone number from one diner at each table in case there is a coronavirus outbreak.
Watch: Janet Mills announces changes to June 1 reopening phase