Tucker Brannon of Lisbon finishes his lunch from Cook’s Lobster & Ale House on Bailey Island on a Saturday in late April. Many customers are ordering takeout from the restaurant online and then picnicking near or in their cars in the Cook’s parking lot, which overlooks the ocean. Briana Soukup/Portland Press Herald

The first of June is a month away, but Matt Chappell is already thinking about how to reopen his Yarmouth restaurant on that date, now that the state has given the go-ahead.

Gather is, perhaps, not the best name for a restaurant opening in the middle of a pandemic. But Chappell wants to reopen June 1, so he is reconfiguring the restaurant’s tables and booths for social distancing, and thinking about how to safely seat customers at his long communal table, a centerpiece of the 75-seat restaurant. He wants to use his outdoor space, too, but is waiting to hear from the state if that’s OK.

Chappell still has a lot of questions: Does the state-set limit of no more than 50 people gathering in one place at a time include the 10 cooks and servers who usually work a dinner service? Can he serve 50 people in his dining room and 50 more outside? What kind of limits will be set on the distance between tables, and the number of people allowed to sit at any one table? Will the public be skittish about dining out again?

Every restaurateur in the state is falling down this rabbit hole of uncertainty while trying to decide whether – and how – to reopen June 1.

The stakes are high. A group called the Restaurant Workers of Maine, which claims to have 5,000 members, last week sent a letter to Gov. Janet Mills warning that the industry could collapse if it doesn’t get more details about the reopening restrictions and if restaurants are not allowed to operate at full capacity by July 1.

Restaurants play a huge role in Maine’s economy. The state has 4,400 restaurants, 645 of which are seasonal, according to the Maine Health Inspection Program. Maine’s restaurants generate $2.5 billion in annual sales and provide nearly 64,000 jobs, according to the National Restaurant Association.

“The restrictions (on reopening) are very concerning,” said Chappell, who sits on the board of Hospitality Maine, an industry trade group. “We’re dealing with how consumers are feeling, and we’re dealing with how the state is going to limit the way we can operate.”

With so much uncertainty, some restaurateurs, although happy a solid reopening date is on the horizon, are still thinking about whether to open then.

Jesse Bania, general manager of Solo Italiano in Portland, considers the June 1 opening date “theoretical” and says the 124-seat restaurant is taking things “from week to week.” If Solo Italiano is to open in a month, he said, it needs less ambiguity about the rules. Will the restaurant be required to offer hand sanitizer? Do diners have to wear masks – and how could they since they are there to eat?

“If we’re going to start opening in one month,” Bania said, “a lot of this stuff needs to be set out as soon as possible because we will need to make adjustments.”

The restaurant group that runs Fore Street, Scales and Street & Co., all in Portland, are in wait-and-see mode as well. “Let’s not be super aggressive in reopening and then we have to shut down again,” said Robyn Violette, general manager at Fore Street. “That’s doesn’t make any sense.”

ALL SHAPES AND SIZES 

Depending on size, location and style, restaurants each face their own set of reopening challenges.

Alec Altman owns three Binga’s Wingas – a 225-seat restaurant in Portland, and two smaller locations in Windham and Yarmouth. He rents the Portland space, which has the highest overhead of the three, and he relies heavily on foot traffic from the now-shuttered Cross Insurance Arena across the street to pay his bills.

The Portland Binga’s has been closed for four weeks, but Altman and his partners plan to open it soon for takeout. He’s less sure about whether he will reopen to in-house diners June 1. The Portland restaurant is the least profitable of the three, and Altman says he’d rather close it than let it hemorrhage money and siphon support from the other locations, letting the entire enterprise “die a slow death.”

“As soon as we start looking at dangerously unprofitable,” he said, “we’re done.”

Danny Napolitano, left, and his father, Bob, stand in the dining room of Bruno’s Restaurant & Tavern in late April. They hope to open on June 1 under the governor’s plan to reopen the state’s economy. Gregory Rec/Portland Press Herald

Danny Napolitano, whose family owns Bruno’s in Portland, hopes to be able to open both the 75-seat dining room and the adjacent tavern on June 1, although he’s still not sure if the tavern, which serves food, is considered a restaurant or a bar. Bars may not open until July 1 under Gov. Mills’ plan. He also wonders if there will be special rules for the many banquets and private parties the restaurant hosts.

Napolitano briefly offered takeout, but his staff objected, worried about catching the coronavirus and infecting their families. Will they – and cooks and servers elsewhere – feel safe enough to return to work by June 1? Servers interact with dozens of customers during a shift, and social distancing in any kind of restaurant kitchen is, Chappell says, “a challenge.”

Nathan Steinauer, a line cook at Honeypaw in Portland, says he “would feel OK” about returning to work assuming the number of coronavirus cases continues to trend down and proper protocols are in place to ensure staff safety. The restaurant shares a kitchen, and ownership, with the adjacent Eventide and Hugo’s, and like Eventide, attracts large crowds of summer visitors. Steinauer expects that when the time comes, Honeypaw would likely do a partial rollout so it could keep the number of employees in the kitchen at appropriate socially distant levels.

IN SEASON 

Maine’s seasonal restaurants, which rely heavily on summer tourists, face their own challenges. Many that normally would be open for the season now are not – even for curbside pickup – because they’ve been waiting for more information from the state, according to Steve Hewins, president of HospitalityMaine.

Cook’s Lobster & Ale House on Bailey Island is open year-round with a small core staff. By this time of year, the restaurant is usually ramping up hiring for peak summer season, when it employs close to 70 people and makes 75 percent of its annual revenue, according to Jennifer Charbonneau, who owns the 250-seat restaurant with her husband.

“We were on track to have our busiest summer,” she said. “I still think it will be an OK summer, but I would hate to hire many people and not have the business for them. We’re still doing takeout, and that’s been going fairly well.”

Wes McGlew, right, and his father, Shawn McGlew, of China, take their order back to their family, who are waiting in the car at Cook’s Lobster & Ale House. Brianna Soukup/Portland Press Herald

Customers have been parking at the restaurant, beach chairs in tow, and having picnics in the parking lot overlooking the ocean, she said. But Cook’s has also had to postpone or cancel a lot of business, including a 200-person destination wedding in August, and bus tours that catered to seniors, who are vulnerable to the virus. Now the Charbonneaus are planning to open their dining room June 1 – they’ll seat customers in every other booth – and, having invested in extra picnic tables, they are looking for more guidance on outdoor seating.

“All we can do is take it day by day, but we want people to feel comfortable,” Charbonneau said. “I don’t want them walking in and seeing a restaurant jampacked.”

Landace Porta, general manager of the Black Point Inn in Scarborough, said the resort may open its two restaurants on June 1, a month before the inn can open, according to the governor’s plan. “This is going to be a year of innovation for the restaurant industry,” she said.

When he’s not putting together lobster roll kits to sell to quarantined customers, Steve Kingston spends a lot of time thinking about what it will look like when he can fully reopen The Clam Shack for the 2020 season.

He’s considering installing Plexiglas at the cash registers in the popular Kennebunkport seafood shack, as some grocery stores have done to protect their workers from exposure to the coronavirus. Customers may find themselves standing on social-distancing lobster stencils in long summer lines. He’s painting 25 picnic tables to make them easier to disinfect when he spreads them across his new property next door – the one where he was going to open a new seafood restaurant until COVID-19 put those plans on hold.

“We’re just starting to do our diagramming of what this looks like,” Kingston said. “How do we do curbside to start? How are we going to keep our employees safe?”

Since he’s starting with curbside, Kingston is planning to open sometime in May. He’s working on a new website that includes a to-go section where customers can order and pre-pay with credit cards. Kingston expects that the new 14-day quarantine rule will keep most of his day-tripping customers from Massachusetts and other points south away. He says he respects the rule, but will need the state’s help to enforce it, and can’t be responsible for tourists who disregard it.

“The state is trying to balance the health of the Maine people and the health of the Maine economy, and it’s a monumental task,” he said. “We don’t want to push to open things up now only to have them close in July or August when we might actually be able to salvage the season.”

He’s hoping that locals will take advantage of the fact that there’s no long line of tourists at his shack.

That’s what has happened at Day’s Crabmeat & Lobster in Yarmouth, where Aaron Lewis opened in mid-April instead of his usual May date, partly because the town’s Clam Festival – always one of his biggest weekends – was canceled. The response, he said, has been “tremendous.” And unlike previous years, he’s had no trouble finding employees. “I’ve got so many people begging me to work,” he said, noting that many of his kitchen workers are college students who have been stuck at home.

Even so, Lewis expects that business will be off by 30 percent this year. “We’re in the 95th year right now, and we will absolutely continue on,” he said. “But it’s going to be a tight year, that’s for sure.”

IF YOU OPEN IT, WILL THEY COME? 

Lewis’ experience could give hope to other restaurant owners, who are afraid they will open and no one will come. Alternatively, could reopening benefit from pent-up demand? The email newsletter Eat Drink Lucky and Maine Restaurant Week surveyed more than 1,600 regular restaurantgoers about how soon they plan to return to dine-in service after COVID-19 restrictions are lifted. About 23 percent said they would return immediately. More said they would return within a month.

But they want to feel safe, too. Eighty-one percent said they want to know about a restaurant’s social distancing plan before dining there, and 71 percent want to learn about the business’s disinfecting procedures.

Among those ready to return is Brunswick resident Keith Carlon, who typically goes out to eat or drink two to four times a week; he said his patience for the lack of a social life is wearing thin. Lately, he’s really been missing the possibility of a simple glass of wine at Vessel & Vine.

Portland resident Bobbie Lamont, who typically dines out twice a week, is ready, too. “I’ll go back” when restaurants reopen, she said. “I’ll seek out uncrowded hours. I’ll go at off-times. And I’ll seek the restaurants that are less than half full. They have been very conscientious with cleaning. And I’m not so worried about the virus being transferred via food. With the social distancing and with wearing masks, I feel pretty safe.”

Chappell says his strategy will be to meet his customers where they are. On Wednesday night, he opened Gather to takeout, and he plans to keep that option for diners who aren’t ready to return to the dining room come June. He’s trying to think of other creative options “because the limitation of 50 people in a space, on top of other restrictions that are probably going to be handed down to us, is going to make it challenging for us to survive through the summer.”

Food Editor Peggy Grodinsky contributed to this story.

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