Citing a spike in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, Gov. Janet Mills announced Wednesday that she is postponing the reopening of indoor restaurant service in the state's three most populous counties.
It is a setback for restaurant owners in York, Cumberland and Androscoggin counties, some of whom had been hoping for a partial reopening Monday, June 1.
Wednesday's statewide COVID-19 case count dipped by 13, marking just the second decline in a little over a week. But that sliver of positive news was overshadowed by trends in York, Cumberland and Androscoggin counties, where case counts continue to increase along with hospitalizations. All told, the three counties represent nearly 80 percent of the total cases in Maine and most of its active cases.
More alarming is an uptick in hospitalization rate — an important metric in tracking containment of the virus.
"In light of those trends, today my administration is postponing the reopening of restaurants for dine-in service for those three counties in particular," Mills said.
Mills said restaurants in those three counties can move to reopen for outdoor dining service Monday. She said her administration has already made permits available, and she encouraged municipalities in York, Cumberland and Androscoggin counties to close streets to allow restaurants to expand outdoor seating — a step that Portland has already taken.
And, because of the change, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Administrative and Financial Services, which have licensing authority, are streamlining and expediting approval of licenses to facilitate outside-only dining.
Additionally, cities and towns are exploring ways to support local businesses.
"At last week's council meeting, the council did pass a resolution saying let's take as much of the sidewalks and some of the street, perhaps, some of the parking spaces and make them available to some of our downtown businesses to utilize," says Lincoln Jeffers, the director of Economic and Community Development in Lewiston.
In Auburn, Mayor Jason Levesque says he is "dismayed and disappointed" by the governor's decision. Levesque says city staff are also working with restaurants to find creative ways to increase outdoor dining space, including suspending parking space requirements and eliminating certain regulations.
Restaurants in 12 other Maine counties were allowed to reopen May 18. Come Monday, restaurants in Penobscot County will be allowed to join them with restrictions.
"I know that this is not welcome news for those restaurants who have been preparing to fully reopen next week," Mills said.
The news came quickly for Bill Hird, owner of the Chick-a-Dee of Lewiston.
"Nobody is taking the news very good at all," said Bill Hird, owner of the Chick-a-Dee of Lewiston.
As of Wednesday afternoon, the sign outside of his restaurant announced it was reopening for dine-in service Monday and advised customers to make early reservations.
Now, Hird said he'll have to tell customers — as well as his 16 servers who have been furloughed for several weeks — that they have to wait.
"I have to call all my staff because I had everybody lined up for next week to come in for dine in service along with takeout,” Hird said. “I've already had a few of 'em call me, saying 'Billy, what's going on?' I think it's horrible that she's given us a five-day notice. We're supposed to open up next Monday and today's Wednesday, telling us that it's going to be at least two more weeks. I do not understand it at all."
And Hird said the option for outdoor dining is so far a no-go because the city of Lewiston will not allow him to put out picnic tables, even if spaced six feet apart.
The news was also unwelcome for Jonathan West, owner of Jonathan's in Ogunquit, a fine-dining restaurant that seats several hundred.
West described the governor's announcement as infuriating. He had just removed half of his tables to accommodate distancing rules and provided eight hours of safety training for his staff of 20. Now, that is on hold. But West said he is committed to reopening when it is allowed.
"We're here to stay. It's going to take more than the state of Maine and the government of the state of Maine and the COVID virus of 80 people dying in four months to put us down," he said.
But not all restaurants in Cumberland, York and Androscoggin counties were ready for dine-in service.
Zak Taillon, general manager of Boda, said the Thai restaurant in Portland had already decided it was not safe to open Monday and would stick with offering takeout for now. Taillon noted the recent decision by Salvage BBQ, also in Portland, to close because a staff member had been infected with COVID-19. He said the situation for each restaurant is different, but for Boda safety was the primary concern.
"As far as health over profits sort of viewpoint, I think that it is too soon," he said. "Just to think that we closed with only one case in Maine, and now it's higher than ever and to think we're reopening now when it's potentially still spreading so quickly, just feels a little unsettling."
While Mills' decision to delay restaurant reopenings in the three counties hardest hit by COVID-19, the second phase of her economic restart plan will move forward on Monday. That means retail shops in all 16 counties can reopen with restrictions, as well as lodging and private and state campgrounds.
In addition, the governor is allowing an increase of gatherings from 10 people to 50 people, including in houses of worship. Mills acknowledged that her administration had discussed postponing the loosening of the gathering restrictions, but ultimately decided against it because of the safety restrictions put in place.
"We believe we can monitor the situation and that people will be safe," Mills said.
The third stage of the governor's economic restart plan is scheduled for July 1, but is subject to change.
Maine Public's Susan Sharon and Patty Wight contributed to this report.