Signs outside a restaurant state their mask policy in Old Orchard Beach on July 7, 2020. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

PORTLAND, Maine — It was jarring for some business owners to hear the governor say Tuesday that bars and tasting rooms would soon be able to increase capacity in the same afternoon that President Donald Trump cut off talks for a coronavirus stimulus package via Twitter.

Charlie Mitchell, owner of Bayside Bowl, a multi-level bowling alley complex in Portland with multiple bars and serving areas, described the proximity of the two announcements as a “whip saw,” complicating the service industry’s ability to plan for the winter.

With 30,000 square feet of indoor space at Bayside Bowl, Mitchell welcomes the increased capacity. He’s able to space customers out, and can accommodate more of its league bowlers.

Last year, the venue would routinely draw hundreds to see touring bands play at its downstairs stage. Now, Mitchell hopes to sneak in a live set and screen a football game on the roof, and host a drag show in the parking lot.

“While we’ve lost dozens of previously scheduled winter events that would have had far more than 100 guests, hopefully we are able to fill in the calendar a bit with smaller events under the threshold,” he said.

More on maine bar reopenings

What you need to know as Maine reopens bars and raises gathering limits

Here are highlights of the updated health checklists and the provisions of the governor’s new executive order.

Gov. Janet Mills issued an executive order Wednesday that loosens restrictions for establishments that provide seated food and drink service, like bars, tasting rooms and restaurants. The plan would expand limits on indoor service areas to 50 percent of permitted occupancy or 100 people — whichever number is fewer — beginning next Tuesday, and allow bars and tasting rooms to serve indoors beginning Nov. 2.

“With winter weather approaching, we must support businesses across the state as outdoor service becomes less viable and people move inside” Mills said, adding that the new guidelines “should not lure us into a false sense of security.”

Dave Aceto, the owner of Arcadia National Bar in Portland, appreciates that bars will be allowed to reopen soon, but he doesn’t know when they’ll be able to do that safely. With winter coming, he said businesses like his will have to make the choice of putting strict indoor safety measures in place, or shutting down completely until the virus is contained or customers can gather outside again.

“You are constantly choosing between your financial and personal health,” Aceto said.

Whenever Arcadia reopens, Aceto expects he won’t have people sitting at the bar. And he plans to limit the number of customers to 35 using a reservation system, where $20 can buy a three-hour block of unlimited gaming. 

While fine dining restaurants in Maine were allowed to serve dozens of people indoors this summer, Aceto said it was “frustrating” that his arcade bar wasn’t allowed to open. He wondered why he “couldn’t let 20 people come in and play pinball,” if he had a rigorous safety plan in place. 

“When we asked the state about a restaurant liquor license, we were told that burgers and subs didn’t qualify you as a restaurant but an open-faced burger with gravy did because you ate it with a fork and knife,” Aceto said.

In Portland and elsewhere, several establishments that were previously licensed as bars were relicensed as Class-A Lounges in the spring, allowing them to pivot to outdoor dining more easily under a legal loophole.

Tasting rooms could stand to be the biggest beneficiaries of Mills’ executive order. Many have served patrons outdoors at picnic tables covered by large canopies. That setup worked during warm weather, but the winter brings snow and other hazards that can damage tarps. Most rental companies, like the one that supplies Maine Beer Co.’s tasting room with its tent, have policies that ban their use after Oct. 31, making the ability for tasting rooms to serve indoors come November vital to their operations.

But it’s not as simple as moving everyone indoors.

Maine Beer Co. spokesperson Anne Marisic said the tasting room still expects to balance the loosened restrictions against the threat of the virus, which has grown in Maine’s southernmost counties in recent weeks.

“We’re going to be offering outdoor seating as long as we possibly can,” Marisic said.

The pre-restriction occupancy of Maine Beer Co.’s indoor tasting room in Freeport was 420, but its still capped at 100 under the new rules. The guidelines don’t much expand what they can offer indoors and they currently have no plans to increase indoor seating, Marisic said. She hopes that patrons can drink outdoors at a half-covered patio area under the glow of heat lamps.

“I think like most breweries throughout the state and a lot of restaurants, we’re counting on Mainers and our visitors to be tough and start enjoying some cold weather.”