Complaints to authorities about businesses flouting Maine’s coronavirus rules have been low across the state since February, but that may be the calm before the tourism-season storm.
Officials said it will be easier to see people not wearing masks or clustering too closely when they are outside, and more summer visitors means more crowded areas. On May 24, Gov. Janet Mills will raise indoor and outdoor occupancy limits at restaurants and other businesses. Maine is keeping social distancing and mask mandates as neighboring New Hampshire loosens them, starting with a lift of the state mask mandate on April 16.
Complaints and violations rose during last year’s tourist season after the governor loosened quarantine restrictions on visitors last July. After rising through the end of last year, they dropped this February to fewer than 12 a day, Lisa Silva, manager of the state’s Health Inspection Program, said. That has also been the case in the larger cities like Portland that enforce state rules, but complaints picked up recently and more are likely with the influx of visitors, compliance officers said.
“It’s more visual to see 20 people sitting at an outdoor dining area as opposed to walking into a restaurant or store to see if there are any violations,” Jessica Hanscombe, Portland’s manager for licensing and housing safety, said. “As the weather gets warmer and occupancy goes up, even with social distancing, I think we’ll see more complaints.”
In March, the governor announced visitors from New England could come to Maine immediately without quarantine or testing, as could those from other states who had COVID-19 recently or who were fully vaccinated, a move that produced an immediate bump in lodging reservations.
The expected uptick in complaints this summer could surpass those from last year’s pandemic-restricted tourism season. In Portland, there have been between 10 and 15 complaints per day through the pandemic. Jeff Wallace, Bangor’s director of code enforcement, said he was receiving seven or eight complaints each week until February, and now that has trickled down to one or two weekly, but he also expects a rise as it gets warmer.
David Hediger, director of Lewiston’s Planning and Code Enforcement Office, said his office went from getting no complaints a couple months ago to getting about three per week for the past couple weeks. He said more people have been in compliance as the pandemic continued.
“Wearing masks has become the new norm,” he said.
Complaints typically involve restaurants and are passed to Hediger’s office from the state’s tip website. The tips generally are anonymous and list the business’s name, location and incident, such as “Saturday at 11 a.m. the cashier was observed not wearing a mask,” he said. Lewiston’s approach is to educate those accused of violations rather than to penalize them. No business has had its license suspended there.
Cities and towns throughout Maine enforce the state’s coronavirus prevention checklists differently. Complaints can be made through the tip website for restaurants and lodging businesses and through the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry for markets and agriculture businesses. They also can go directly to local police or code enforcement departments. Portland also has a tip line.
Once a complaint is received, local authorities typically visit the business. If an official sees an infraction, the complaint goes to a state inspector and can be elevated to an “imminent health hazard” notification, which means the business poses a threat for spreading COVID-19 and must act immediately to correct the infraction.
If a business is observed continuing to shirk mandates, the appropriate state agency can temporarily suspend its license. State inspectors visit noncompliant businesses throughout the state except in Portland, South Portland, Lewiston and Auburn, whose inspectors act on behalf of the state.
From April 1, 2020, until March 9 of this year, Maine’s Health Inspection Program, part of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, received 4,100 complaints, with 93 observed by inspectors who issued imminent health hazard notifications. Of those, 23 businesses had their license temporarily suspended. Almost all have been reinstated. The inspection program oversees restaurants and accommodations.
The Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, which oversees markets, issued 1,785 notices alerting business owners of reported noncompliance, 13 formal warning letters and one temporary business license suspension. Most of the businesses made measurable changes, department spokesperson Jim Britt said.
Some restaurants had more than one infraction. Sunday River Brewing Co. in Bethel, whose owner, Rick Savage, flouted state rules by opening to customers when indoor dining was barred, had the most with four imminent health hazard notifications and five temporary suspensions from the Health Inspection Program.
This year, the state has issued 15 imminent health hazard notifications and four license suspensions, including Pat’s’ Pizza in Portland’s Old Port and Cancun Mexican Restaurant in Waterville. Hanscombe said that is the only license suspended in Portland during the pandemic, as the city tries to work with businesses. Businesses have generally complied well, she said.
Cancun owner Hector Fuentes declined comment on the situation, but said his restaurant would reopen this week. The temporary suspension notice, when ends at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, said on several occasions Waterville police observed staff, patrons and security guards not wearing face coverings, removal of bar stools and dining tables in violation of state mandates and patrons wandering around and dancing.
Waterville Police Chief Joseph Massey said that while there were repeat complaints and violations observed by police at Cancun, officers generally try to get voluntary compliance. The department gets three or four complaints a month and it can be hard to determine validity.
“Sometimes it’s someone complaining about the same business more than once because they’re angry,” he said.
Some businesses initially felt singled out. Richard Clark, co-owner of Benjamin’s Pub in Bangor, reopened his restaurant in downtown Bangor in March after closing it last November because of the rise in coronavirus cases. He complained in November that he got visits from Wallace and a call from a state inspector. Even though no violations were found, he said inspectors were “coming down on us pretty hard.”
Things have changed since he has reopened, with customers good about wearing masks. He is also keeping capacity at about 50 percent by choice.
“It feels like things are toning down after being tense last fall, that people are prudent and compliant,” Clark said.
Hanscombe in Portland said gray areas in mandates can be frustrating, and one inspector may see things differently than another. The state guidance has evolved continually. Restaurant owners were initially confused about what it meant to have tables 6 feet apart. It is the back of an occupied chair at one table to the back of an occupied chair at another, so some restaurants are allowing 7 feet or more, she said.
Another issue is how the complaints are made. Hanscombe said Portland often sees “drive-by” complaints from people sitting at red lights, looking into a restaurant and thinking the tables are too close.
She said it can be difficult for code enforcement officers to visit a business, where most of the time they do not see a violation, but where they must talk to the owner nonetheless about compliance.
“I don’t want anyone to ever think that this is our dream job, to go out and do COVID-19 enforcement,” Hanscombe said. “We’re just required to enforce what there is.”
Correction: Maine’s Health Inspection Program is part of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. An earlier version of this article was incorrect. The owner of Cancun Mexican Restaurant is Hector Fuentes. An earlier version of this article misspelled his last name.