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On March 16, I woke up at 5 a.m. in a sweat. This is a relatively normal occurrence for me as we prepare for St. Patrick’s Day, but this year was different. I immediately pulled up notification after notification about crowds of St. Patrick’s Day revelers in cities like Chicago and New Orleans. The optics were horrifying. Panic set in. We were about to operate one of the busiest Irish pubs in New England just as the coronavirus pandemic was hitting Maine.
There was no point in closing if no one else was closing, I thought. I fired off emails to my Guinness distributor, local community leaders, the mayor and city manager. A rival Irish pub and a brewpub across the street decided to close. I posted our decision to close. The city manager followed with a curfew an hour later. By the end of the week, bars and restaurants across Maine and the country were closed. Irish pubs’ initiative and the looming disaster that would have been St. Patrick’s Day had finally been enough to convince authorities to act.
During the first month with the whole country locked down, stories of togetherness were everywhere. We were going to beat this together!
It is now three months later, and restaurants and bars are reopening, but any sense of togetherness has completely evaporated. As the weather got warm, we began to believe that we don’t need to wear masks or social distance outside. We went from ignoring social distancing to defiantly refusing to wear masks to becoming openly confrontational.
As more and more people go out to restaurants and bars, the rest of the country is seeing a surge in cases. In just a week, unless we get our act together, Maine will become one of those hotspots, filled with tourists from areas in the country with far more cases.
I get it. Restaurants and bars are running out of money and need to earn forgiveness of our Paycheck Protection Plan loans. Unfortunately, responsible operators who adhere to guidelines lose money because they are operating at less than half of their capacity with rents and expenses at full capacity. So instead, many try to get away with packing in people, rationalizing that safety is up to the customers’ personal responsibility. Unfortunately, when it comes to the transmission of COVID-19, we cannot rely on personal responsibility. Until a vaccine is developed, we have to contain it.
Only two things have proven to reduce transmission of COVID-19 — social distancing and contact tracing. Masks help by reducing breath aerosol by 50 to 90 percent depending on the type of covering used. Being outside also helps because outside there is more airflow, dispersing droplets from speaking and breathing, but it only reduces transmission. We still need to keep distanced and wear masks when greeting strangers.
So come on people, get with the program! It is selfish if you refuse to wear a mask because the mask reduces the likelihood you give the virus to someone else. It is not a shield. By wearing a mask and keeping at least six feet apart you are telling strangers that you care about them!
Restaurants and bars, if you fail to space your tables six feet apart, ensure that customers wear masks when not consuming food and beverages, sanitize surfaces after every use, and take reservations with customers’ contact information, you are hurting yourself. Because when cases increase to unmanageable levels, the governor will have no choice but to shut us all down again.
And, finally, government leaders please give restaurants and bars the financial relief they need to keep their businesses going without operating irresponsibly. Incentivize them to do the right thing, not risk the lives of their customers and employees. We are in this together. Let’s start acting like it!
Douglas Fuss is the founder, owner and operator of Bull Feeney’s in Portland. He is the former chair of the board of Portland Downtown and former chair of its Nightlife Oversight Committee.