The normally crowded intersection of Exchange and Fore streets in Portland's Old Port is deserted Monday afternoon, March 16, in response to concerns about community spread of the coronavirus. (Portland Phoenix/Colin Ellis)
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Much of greater Portland is effectively shutting down as the city and state brace for the continued spread of the coronavirus.

Iconic L.L. Bean in Freeport, known for being open 24/7/365, on Monday joined a growing list of businesses that announced temporary closings of brick-and-mortar establishments in the face of the pandemic.

Portland officials, who closed many city services including City Hall and the public school system for two weeks just ahead of Gov. Janet Mills’ announcement of a state of emergency in Maine on Sunday, on Monday afternoon announced an 8 p.m.- 2 a.m. curfew to effectively prevent people from participating in events related to St. Patrick’s Day. The curfew expires March 22 and is in addition to a curfew from 6 a.m.-2 a.m. for March 17-18 that was already in effect for places where groups gather.

But city officials are also recommending restaurants only serve takeout food, and that gyms and fitness studios close for the foreseeable future.

“This is a time of shared sacrifice for all of us, and we must be willing to alter our daily lives for now,” City Manager Jon Jennings said at City Hall. “We need everyone to take COVID-19 very seriously in order to limit community spread in the greater Portland area and across the state. 

“I understand the very difficult situation this puts our business owners in, but in a global pandemic, it cannot be business as usual. We simply cannot have large gatherings, such as in the Old Port. We need your help in confronting the coronavirus. We will continue to reassess as we go forward and provide updates as they are available.” 

Mayor Kate Snyder said this was a cautious measure in the best interest of public health.

An empty sidewalk Monday afternoon on Exchange Street looking toward Middle Street in Portland’s Old Port is evidence that people are practicing social distancing. (Portland Phoenix/Colin Ellis)

“We all have an obligation to do what we can to slow the spread, and thus the impacts of this virus, and this requires us to practice social distancing,” Snyder said.

The city will also delay the deadline for property tax, personal property, and stormwater fee payments until June 1 with no interest, and will not enforce parking regulations for street maintenance in various neighborhoods for the foreseeable future.  

Gov. Mills on Sunday also announced an effort to help Maine workers affected by the increasing span of a state shutdown, by asking the U.S. Small Business Administration to provide loans to small businesses to overcome financial loss during the pandemic. 

Mills’s request to the SBA also temporarily expands eligibility for unemployment insurance to individuals whose employment has been impacted by COVID-19.

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COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus, is a respiratory illness that began in China and has spread rapidly around the globe. It was declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organization last week.

Portland on Friday, March 13, announced a city employee had tested positive for coronavirus, and the state Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said seven confirmed cases and five presumptive positive cases had been identified.

The city employee was not the only person in the region to be identified with the virus. On Sunday, a student at Cape Elizabeth Middle School tested presumptively positive, as did two residents at the OceanView retirement community in Falmouth. 

On Tuesday, the state CDC said the number of confirmed and likely cases in Maine was up to 32.

Taking it ‘very, very seriously’

Last week, when city officials announced a city employee at the India Street Public Health Center had tested positive for the virus, Jennings said the clinic would close for 14 days. City Hall was closed for the afternoon on Friday before officials decided it and other city buildings would also be closed for two weeks. Public events, including Monday night’s scheduled City Council meeting, were canceled.

Jennings said 23 employees have been asked to self-quarantine, which includes employees who work directly at the clinic and those who travel between it and City Hall.

“We are taking this pandemic very, very seriously,” he said.

Jennings said the circumstances around coronavirus are “ever-changing,” and officials were working to prevent a wider breakout. He said all out-of-state travel for city employees has been suspended for at least 30 days, and city employees who show any symptoms of illness are required to stay home. Anyone who appears ill will be sent home, Jennings said.

Seven volunteers at the clinic were also asked to self-quarantine. Jennings said he didn’t know how many people were served by the clinic, but said the city will work to make sure their medical needs are met.

“We have been working with other community providers to make sure those patients have access to a continuation of care,” Jennings said. “We will be reassessing that as we go along, and we will make sure we continue to make sure those patients have access to medical care.”

Jennings said the one problematic area is the needle exchange the clinic offers, which other services don’t offer. He said the city is working with the Maine Center for Disease Control to find an alternative source to provide that service.

Additionally, the Barron Center, a nursing and rehabilitation center, will be closely monitored. Jennings said the population at the center is vulnerable to the virus. Employees of the center will be screened before each shift.

Jennings said the city is also working closely with its shelters, such as the Oxford Street Shelter and the Family Shelter. The city has worked to reserve floors at each shelter to serve as an area for self-quarantine.

“In case any of our guests are confirmed positive, they will be able to isolate and will not be asked to do anything other than that,” he said.

The Portland Public Library, Merrill Auditorium, Portland Expo Center and Ocean Gateway all canceled events during the city shutdown.

Schools closed

Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana announced that Portland Public Schools, the state’s largest school district, would shut down until at least March 30. This includes Portland Adult Education and the Portland Arts and Technology High School. Before and aftercare programs, including recreation services, and outside facilities will also close during this time.

“To prevent the spread of the virus and allow us to reopen on March 30, we need all families to practice and enforce strict social distancing during this time,” Botana said in a press release.

All Maine Catholic schools will also close through March 29. South Portland, Cape Elizabeth, Falmouth, Westbrook, Gray, Cumberland-North Yarmouth, Yarmouth, Old Orchard Beach, Bangor and Freeport- and Kennebunk-area schools will all close for at least two weeks. Lewiston Public Schools will postpone classes and activities until at least April 6. 

Several colleges and universities around the state announced students would no longer be allowed on campus and would have to finish their courses online.

During the absence of school programming, Botana said Portland schools would continue to provide meals to students in food insecure situations, although that service wouldn’t begin until Wednesday, two days after schools had closed. In the meantime, the group Full Plates Full Potential worked to distribute meals to students on Tuesday, March 17.

Jennings said the city was encouraging other agencies to cancel events and allow for social distancing. Some have taken the advice. For example, the annual Maine Jewish Film Festival was postponed until fall. The Portland Museum of Art is closed through April 13, the Maine Jewish Museum is closed through March, many smaller galleries are also closed to the public.

Jennings also said two cruise ships scheduled to port in the city at the end of April won’t be allowed to dock, at least for now.

“We will be reassessing this as we go forward,” he said.

Over the weekend, the state CDC and U.S. Centers for Disease Control said gatherings of 50 or more people – at performances, exhibits, restaurants, weddings, meetings – should be postponed or canceled.

Big Babe’s Tavern on Ocean Street in South Portland, which only opened a few weeks ago, is among the restaurants and bars closed out of concern about coronavirus. The handwritten signs on the doors say the business is “closed until further notice” and urge patrons to “stay safe, this too shall pass.” (Portland Phoenix/Mo Mehlsak)

Restaurants, bars, stores

Portland’s bars and restaurants are likely to be hit hard. 

While several restaurants, bars and breweries announced over the weekend they would voluntarily close during the crisis, many remained open. These businesses, which rely on workers unable to work from home, are the type that would benefit from the loans requested by Mills.

“Maine’s small businesses and their workers are the backbone of our economy, and there is no question that the coronavirus is impacting them,” the governor said. “It is my hope that these actions will not only help them weather this difficult time by providing critical capital and financial support, but also provide them an important sense of relief amid the uncertainty.”

Mills’s emergency legislation also would revise eligibility requirements for unemployment insurance for situations not typically covered, such as a business shutting down for the outbreak or an employee being temporarily quarantined or an employee leaving work to care for a family member or due to risk of exposure.

Snyder last week had said the city was hoping to work with local businesses to ensure they could remain open, and officials were encouraging people to continue shopping and had not planned on asking businesses to close.

Several well-known businesses in and around the city, however, have already closed voluntarily, including Allagash Brewing, Bull Moose Music, Eaux, Central Provisions, Rose Foods, Red’s Dairy Freeze, Big Babe’s Tavern, B.Good and Judy Gibson. Big Tree Hospitality Group, which owns Hugo’s, Eventide Oyster Co., and The Honey Paw, announced its Middle Street restaurants would close their dining rooms, although Eventide and The Honey Paw would join other city restaurants in offering takeout and delivery of food.

In its announcement on Monday, L.L. Bean said it is closing all of its retail stores across the country through March 29. The closings include the flagship Freeport store, which has closed only five times previously and never for more than 24 hours at a time.

Chief Executive Steve Smith said store employees will receive pay and benefits during the shutdown. Customers can still place orders online or by phone.