Portland is proposing to temporarily close several downtown streets and to change outdoor permitting so that restaurants, retail establishments and other small businesses can use the extra space to safely reopen as Maine continues to fight the coronavirus pandemic.

The plan, which does not need state approval, would allow restaurants and businesses that sell retail merchandise to expand their dining room seating and retail sales into publicly and privately owned areas that are not typically used for such purposes. Those areas might include sidewalks, parking spaces, plazas, parks, as well as the six targeted streets: Cotton Street, Dana Street, Exchange Street, Milk Street, Middle Street and Wharf Street.

The streets are in the Old Port, but the section of Middle Street that would be closed is in the East End.

City officials made the announcement Tuesday afternoon, just two days before the proposal will be considered by members of the Portland City Council’s Economic Development Committee. If the committee endorses the plan at its 4 p.m. meeting Thursday, it will presented to the City Council for adoption on Monday night. The city views the plan as a way to help businesses that have been forced to close or curtail operations due to the restrictions imposed because of the pandemic.

“We are all aware of the enormous pressure our small businesses are under,” said City Councilor Justin Costa, who serves as chair of the Economic Development Committee. “We hope that this plan will be of some help to our businesses that are seeking to do the right thing and serve customers in the safest way possible.”

By allowing the businesses to expand their dining and retail areas into open-air spaces, owners will be able to increase the number of customers they can serve and still adhere to the 6-foot physical distancing requirements in the executive order issued by Gov. Janet Mills.

“I think this is a great effort, but I still have a lot of questions,” said Harding Lee Smith, who owns three Portland restaurants, including The Corner Room Italian Kitchen and Bar at Federal and Exchange streets, as well as the Grill Room and Bar on Exchange Street. “I think it will work well for a lot of restaurants and I do think it’s a good move by the city.”

Smith said it would be virtually impossible for many restaurants, due to their indoor seating capacity, to adhere to the 6-foot physical distancing standard. Smith wonders how diners with physical limitations can be dropped off if streets are closed and whether open-air diners will be willing to put up with insects or the occasional shower.

Portland said its Permitting and Inspections Department will work with businesses on ways to safely expand their dining operations outside their physical structure as well as help businesses seeking new permits or outdoor dining permit renewals. All of the outdoor seating configurations must comply with the 6-foot distancing requirements in the governor’s executive order.

Use of the closed streets by restaurants and retailers must end by no later than 10 p.m., but the closures will remain in effect 24-hours a day, seven days a week from June 1 through Nov. 1. Through-traffic and parking on those streets will not be permitted at any time, with temporary access only permitted for delivery vehicles and residents before 11 a.m.

Under Mills’ phased reopening plan, restaurants in all 16 counties will be allowed to open June 1, but gatherings of more than 50 people are prohibited. People must wear face coverings or masks in public settings.

“We worked quickly across several departments to put together a proposal that would give our small-business community a number of useful tools to assist them as they seek to reopen or expand their operations in accordance with the state’s guidance for a June 1 opening,” City Manager Jon Jennings said in a statement. “This is a pilot program with a number of temporary policy changes that, if approved, we hope will help businesses as they seek to begin safely serving patrons again.”

The Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce has thrown its support behind the city’s plan.

“Overall, we do not see any significant concerns with this plan and are thrilled that the city has moved so quickly to make this happen prior to restaurants and retail opening in a few weeks,” Quincy Hentzel, CEO of the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce, wrote in a letter to Jennings. “We will be vocal supporters of this proposal and will do what we can to mitigate any opposition and to address any questions about inequity.”

“In the end, I know not every business will be helped with these changes, but I much prefer to see the city doing something that can help many, as opposed to see the city doing nothing because it won’t help all,” Hentzel said.

Portland Downtown, a nonprofit that represents the interests of several dozen downtown business owners, reacted favorably to the plan in a letter sent to Jennings.

“Many cities are enacting similar emergency orders in an effort to support the local business community,” said Casey Gilbert, Portland Downtown’s executive director. “I commend you and city staff for pulling this together so quickly.”

Gilbert said that in order to sell the proposal to local business owners, the city should emphasize that it is a pilot program subject to changes.  She also urged the city to make it clear that the plan extends to those businesses not in the closure area and with enough sidewalk space to expand.

“Making it expressly clear that the order extends to those with enough sidewalk space (to expand) might also help avoid some additional pushback from those businesses who may see this as an unfair advantage for those who are situated along streets with the temporary closures,” Gilbert said in her letter.

One business leader cited the Old Port Festival as an example of how street closures can help businesses.

“I do not have any material issues with any of this and applaud you for moving this concept forward so quickly,” Steve Hewins, president and CEO of Hospitality Maine, wrote in a letter filed with the city. “The city of Portland has a long history in operating programs like this. We only need to refer to 40 years of Old Port Festivals to reference how this has been accomplished successfully.”

City officials maintain there are plenty of parking options in the Old Port and downtown district for those people who might live on a street that is closed or who are trying to reach businesses on a closed street.  The city also points out that there are expansion options for businesses not located on the streets closed to vehicle traffic. Restaurants on streets that are not closed and which have existing outdoor dining can apply to the city to expand their outdoor premises onto adjacent property, whether it be publicly or privately owned.

Under the proposal, restaurants and retail owners may be permitted by the city to expand their business activity, including dining, into parking lots that they own. If the parking lot is owned by another party, the business must document that it has the owner’s permission to use the parking lot.

Another avenue available to restaurants and retailers whose businesses are not located on one of the six closed streets and where there are no other options to expand is to apply to the city for a temporary parklet permit. The parklet permit would allow a business to convert a public parking space into an area for dining. A parklet permit will cost $1,092.

If Portland approves the street closure plan, it will become the second city in Maine to take such an action. The idea was raised last month by Rockland.

And on Monday night, the Rockland City Council voted  to close Main Street from Park Street to Summer Street from June 1-30. The closure dates may be revised after consultation with local merchants and the Maine Department of Transportation. Main Street in Rockland is technically part of Route 1. Some councilors said closure of the one-way section of road might work well and become permanent.

Businesses in Rockland’s downtown zone will be able to use the sidewalks adjacent to their businesses to display merchandise and conduct business. Restaurants would be able to place tables and chairs, and serve food, beverages and alcohol on the sidewalk, provided that the area is cordoned off and monitored.

Related Headlines


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.