This story is part of the Bangor Daily News’ road trip across the state one year into the COVID-19 pandemic. Read an overview of the project here.
Ellsworth’s Main Street was bustling at lunchtime on March 3, a sunny Wednesday. With most businesses and about half of its restaurants open for dine-in service and a dozen mostly masked pedestrians walking around downtown, the Hancock County city seems to have figured out a way to survive on local support this year.
Serendib, a Sri Lankan restaurant on the corner of Main and State streets, stacked away its tables last year and hasn’t used them since. It has been operating exclusively through takeout ever since, and it’s been turning a small profit, said owner Sanjeeva Abeyasekera.
Offering indoor dining just isn’t workable, he said.
“The spacing requirements will only enable us to have 25 percent of the capacity,” Abeyasekera said. “With additional labor and all the other costs involved, it’s not feasible, honestly, to have indoor dining.”
While Abeyasekera has not had the chance to make future plans for his restaurant, he said Serendib will not open for dine-in service until the state allows restaurants to operate at 75 percent capacity — which will happen in late May, though 6-feet spacing requirements between tables will still apply.
Last summer, lower tourist traffic in eastern Maine hurt businesses during what is normally the busiest season for the Ellsworth-area economy, Abeyasekera said. But the increasing pace of vaccinations and lower numbers of new cases in Maine, along with recent news that the state is relaxing some of its pandemic capacity limits on businesses, are providing some with hope that this summer tourist season will be more robust.
Hancock County has made it through the pandemic so far with fewer than 1,000 cases, giving it the third lowest infection rate among Maine’s 16 counties. It’s seen some virus cases at schools, an outbreak at Northern Light Maine Coast Hospital in Ellsworth and a large nursing home outbreak in Deer Isle that claimed 14 lives. Overall, however, the region has been relatively safe, and cases didn’t pick up much during last summer’s tourist season, when Mount Desert Island was a popular destination among those who could get there.
Sierra Firley, 21, moved from Portland to Mariaville during the pandemic and now works at the 2nd to None thrift store on Main Street.
The store allows people to browse and try on clothes, but requires masks. Firley keeps track of all the clothes customers have touched and asks them to leave anything they try on but don’t buy on a designated rack at the back of the store, separated from the rest of the merchandise.
Firley feels safe in Ellsworth. But, she said, she noticed people in Portland were more cautious because of the number of cases in the city.
“Numbers are so high that I feel like everyone was just on high alert,” she said. “Whereas here you might not even know someone that has had it. So, it might be easy to overlook it.”