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PORTLAND, Maine — A day after Maine bars received word that reemerging fears of pandemic outbreaks would stall their reopening plans indefinitely, Oxbow Blending & Bottling’s General Manager Gary Jasgur was coolly strategizing a set of outdoor picnic tables.
As a crew of workers stood on ladders, painting signs and installing lights illuminating the brewery’s outdoor bar, Jasgur said he never saw July 1 as a realistic opening date for indoor bar service. So the latest delay doesn’t affect his plans much.
“We’re going to give it a good long while before we think about opening inside,” Jasgur said. “We’re all treading lightly into this new world.”
Gov. Janet Mills on Monday indefinitely postponed inside bar service after a surge of COVID-19 outbreaks linked to bars in states that have loosened restrictions.
Bar workers in Maine seem to be taking the setback in stride. After operating in crisis mode for weeks, many have already committed to creative workarounds for weathering the virus. Some bars have obtained restaurant licenses, allowing them greater flexibility to serve customers inside, while dozens have added or expanded patios to accommodate more diners outside.
Many bar owners say that a spike of new coronavirus infections in Florida, Texas and other states that have reopened bars, have helped them understand why Mills has been cautious about letting them reopen.
At Oxbow, Jasgur has removed a few standing tables and spread others at socially distant lengths to the street.
“The only downfall out here is that we’re pretty weather-dependent, but it’s better to shut down when it’s raining than to get everyone sick,” Jasgur said.
Oxbow already benefited from a large outdoor seating area, paired with mobile food service from Duckfat, but many Portland spots have followed suit. The city has approved 100 bars and restaurants for expanded outdoor seating through a temporary permitting program, allowing them to serve in privately owned areas or public space.
Johnny Welliver used the program to put a handful of two-tops onto Pine Street, expanding the patio area for LFK, the West End bar and restaurant, by 14 seats.
With LFK’s indoor bar and seating area indefinitely closed, Welliver said being able to serve outdoors lends the business some “sanity and normalcy.” But it’s not sustainable.
“On a good night so far we probably do half as much business as we do on a really bad night,” he said.
But his frustration doesn’t tempt him to provoke the virus. Working with a stripped down team, Welliver and his staff agree that safety is the priority. He dreads the idea of bringing people back only to see another outbreak shut everything down again. It could prompt another “grueling process to get money from the state while everyone’s out of work.”
“I’d rather do it safely,” Welliver said.
New restrictions set by Mills and the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention restrict bars from serving alcohol to diners without any food. But at least five Portland bars have worked around this loophole by switching their class-A lounge licenses to restaurant licenses. This permits them to serve drinks along with beefed-up food menus, according to Jessica Hanscombe, the manager of licensing and housing for the city of Portland.
One of those, Tomaso’s Canteen, plans to reopen indoor seating under the new guidelines this week, said owner Tony Minervino. A popular spot among locals who work in the industry, Tomaso’s has already expanded into parklets, and Minervino adds that the restaurant would have to do some juggling to accommodate its signature bar area.
“We’ll be limited to at most 10 bar seats, where we usually have 18,” Minervino said. “If we have all individuals rather than groups that arrive together, we could be limited to four total people sitting at the bar in order to adhere to social distancing requirements.”
Along with Tomaso’s Canteen, Portland businesses Novare Res, Sagamore Hill Lounge, Rising Tide Brewing Co. and The Yard all have switched their licenses from lounges to restaurants.
Bars outside of the city are also struggling to find footing, and with fewer of the tourist benefits of Portland. Audra Neisig, who manages the Townhouse Pub in Saco and Adams Street Pub in Biddeford, called it a “constantly evolving situation” that’s difficult to plan for. Both spots are equipped with bar licenses only, meaning Mills’ delay to the projected July 1 reopening puts them in another limbo.
“Our business is taking a hit just like everyone else in the country,” Neisig said. “But people’s safety should be the first priority.”
Neisig called it a “constantly evolving situation” that makes it difficult to plan. She hopes to secure a temporary outdoor permit from the city to allow Adams Street Pub to expand service into an adjacent alleyway, joining Townhouse Pub in offering a slender outdoor dining area.
The limited seating is a drag for workers at both bars, who share a staff of 10. So is managing the customers who refuse to wear a mask. Neisig, who said she “puts her employees first and customers second,” said she won’t let her bars contribute to a situation where the virus can come roaring back, like those in Texas and Florida did.
“I’m definitely not interested in being one of those rebels and then find out a couple weeks down the road everyone has COVID-19.”