Businesses In Parts Of Maine Cautiously Prepare For Reopening

May 9, 2020

Gov. Janet Mills offered some relief Friday to retailers and restaurant owners whose business have been closed for weeks — or at least to those in counties where the pandemic has not become prevalent.

Retailers in Maine counties with low rates of infection with the novel coronavirus are cheering Mills’ announcement that as of Monday, May 11, they are back in business — with certain restrictions.

"My immediate reaction is yay! Let's go," says Andy Stewart, co-owner of Lisa Marie's Made in Maine, with locations in Bath and Portland.

Under the governor's new guidance, retail stores in more rural counties where there is no "community transmission" of COVID-19 will be able to open Monday. That includes Sagadahoc, where Bath is located, but not Portland.

Stewart says he would like to get the Portland location open as well, but understands the Governor's reasoning, and says he will take what he can get .

"We have been paying our employees right along. It hurts, but it's the right thing to do. And that's why I'm so ecstatic to get open again, so we can try to stem the bleeding a little bit."

Mills also says restaurants in the low-caseload counties will be able to open Monday, May 18.

Nina Barufaldi-St. Germain owns the Jack Russell Steak House in Bar Harbor.

"I am so grateful for the trust that is being given to us, and for the opportunity to demonstrate how seriously we take the responsibility. I know at Jack Russell's we are a little bit nervous about it, and we are going to take the time to make sure that we do this right. Because we need to, and I know that many in the business community here feel the exact same way."

She adds, though, that with a 5,000 square-foot restaurant she may have more flexibility than smaller establishments that could have a difficult time meeting guidelines for customer separation and frequent table-cleanings.

And she says that although restaurants may be able to open soon, a requirement that non-Maine visitors must quarantine in place for 14 days after arrival could effectively keep many clients away until July or later, and reduce the number of times she can turn a table.

"Mainers won't be able to pay my mortgage, but it is an opportunity to prepare and figure out how to do it well, so when that vital tourist comes in we will be able to do two turns or three turns."

And many in the retail and hospitality industries say that the government has been too slow to reopen the state's economy, and that some of its decisions do not make sense in the real world. Joe Christopher owns several inns and restaurants around the state, and a white water rafting outfit based in The Forks, too.

"Even as of June 1, I can have fifty people in a restaurant with social distancing, but they have disallowed white water rafting, an outdoor activity, so I can't take a family of six from Maine whitewater rafting, but I can have fifty people in a restaurant."

That kind of contradiction, he says, is frustrating. Christopher says he has had to lay off more than 260 workers, and he is doubtful that he can open his restaurants that are in the low-COVID counties and still turn a profit. But he says he will try all the same.

Correction 8:01 a.m. May 9, 2020: A previous version of this post misidentified which county Bath is in. It's in Sagadahoc county.

Originally published 9:09 a.m. May 9, 2020