Dock Fore on Fore Street in Portland changed its license to be able to reopen with an expanded indoor food menu Aug. 1. Bars with traditional licenses, meanwhile, are prevented from operating indoors during the coronavirus pandemic. (Portland Phoenix/Elizabeth Clemente)
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Owners of most Portland bars and tasting rooms remained in limbo this week after Gov. Janet Mills indefinitely delayed the reopening of indoor service amid surging COVID-19 cases.

But not Shaun McCarthy, one of the few who saw this coming.

McCarthy for 40 years has owned the Fore Street pub Dock Fore, which reopened Aug. 1 under a new restaurant and lounge license. McCarthy said he made the decision to switch his license and expand his menu, which allowed him to open this summer.

“If I had a lounge, a bar, or a tavern license I’d be in the same boat as (most others),” McCarthy said Monday. “I’d be totally up against the wall.”

While the Mills administration had anticipated allowing Maine’s bars and tasting rooms to reopen for indoor, seated service on Monday, Nov. 2, unprecedented numbers of COVID-19 cases statewide have stalled the move.

DiMillo’s on the Water on Commercial Street closed on Halloween after an employee tested positive for COVID-19.

According to a Nov. 1 press release from the governor’s office, there were 103 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday, Oct. 30 – the highest single-day increase in Maine since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic nearly eight months ago.

Mills’ statement said she is “deeply sorry” to owners and employees of the state’s bars and tasting rooms.

“We realize this decision will cause hardship. We do not take this action lightly, but the rapid rise in cases in just the past six days means that we cannot in good conscience proceed with the planned reopening,” the governor said. 

McCarthy said if he had not decided to change his licensing three months ago, his establishment would not be open now. He also acknowledged he is in a “different scenario” than many other local bar owners, because he owns his building outright and does not have to worry about paying rent.

Under state law, McCarthy’s license requires “at least a minimum amount of the gross annual income” of the establishment to come from food sales. The amount of required food income varies based on the size of the municipality. In places with more than 50,000 people, like Portland, a year-round Class A restaurant must make a minimum gross annual income of $50,000 from the sale of food to keep its license.

Establishments with other classes of liquor licenses are required to sell food alongside liquor offerings under state law with no minimum amount of income required from food sales. They will remain closed, however, under Mills’ continuing emergency order.

While having a Class 11 license allowed Dock Fore to open again, it will join other restaurants around the state in adhering to tighter restrictions due to the recent rise in virus cases.

Fore Street bar Bull Feeney’s opened briefly in August and closed again three weeks later. A sign on its door and messages on its social media say staff is “regrouping” and “creating a better system” to serve patrons. (Portland Phoenix/Elizabeth Clemente)

Effective Wednesday, Nov. 4, indoor gatherings across the state will again be limited to 50 people, regardless of a restaurant’s capacity. The gathering limit on outdoor activities remains at 100 people under existing guidelines, with physical distancing and the use of face coverings required.

McCarthy said the biggest group a restaurant is currently allowed to have is a party of eight, and Dock Fore has one table that can accommodate that number of diners.

He said patrons for the most part have been “pretty good” about wearing masks and adhering to restrictions, although he has heard from customers that some other local establishments were not following state guidelines.

McCarthy said Dock Fore had one customer who “flipped out” and claimed it was their right not to wear a mask. His response is it is his right not to serve such people.

“I think what happened for a brief period is people were getting away with breaking the rules at other places and thought they could just do whatever they wanted,” he said. 

More than one city restaurant has also had to close recently due to employees or patrons testing positive for the virus.

Commercial Street staple DiMillo’s on the Water announced on Facebook Sunday that it was closed on Halloween because an employee tested positive for COVID-19.

“We feel that it is in our employees’ and guests’ best interest to shut down while we do a thorough cleaning and let the CDC investigate,” the restaurant’s post said. “Reopening is still yet to be determined but we will contact you when that will be.”

Forest Avenue eatery Samuel’s Bar & Grill also posted it was temporarily closed starting Oct. 31 after a “part-time prep person tested positive for COVID.” The restaurant said it would “disinfect, deep clean and make some physical changes to make things safer and everyone comfortable.”

Pat’s Pizza in the Old Port also had to end its dine-in service until Nov. 5 due to “multiple confirmed positive patron(s) with symptoms” who visited the restaurants on Oct. 16 and Oct. 22, according to its Facebook page.

Other establishments have been closed for months without as much explanation.

Portland Street nightclub Bubba’s Sulky Lounge has been closed since March, and according to its Facebook page will not reopen until it is safe to have gatherings of 500 or more, indoors, without restrictions. (Portland Phoenix/Elizabeth Clemente)

Bull Feeney’s in the Old Port reopened Aug. 1 with what its Facebook page then called a “whole new socially distanced, COVID-19 safe operation.” But on Aug. 22 it closed again.

“We’re regrouping, creating a better system to ensure you and our staff are safe, and we don’t contribute to the spread of this deadly disease,” the post stated. A message on the closed bar’s door bears the same message, alongside a “Now Hiring” sign.

Portland Street dance club Bubba’s Sulky Lounge has also been closed since the beginning of the pandemic. Inquiries on the club’s Facebook page receive an automatic response stating the business is closed due to COVID-19 and “the governor’s restrictions on gatherings.”

“We are a nightclub, and we will only be opening again when we are both allowed to have 500+ gatherings without social distancing restrictions and it is safe for our customers and employees to do so,” the response states.

As for McCarthy, he thinks patrons must “re-up their personal responsibility” and commit to wearing masks going forward. He also said diners should keep masks on while servers are at their table “to be courteous to workers.”

“I think if people would be personally responsible to take care of themselves and wear a mask, a lot of this would go away,” he said. “Time’s gone on, it’s been going on since March. Hopefully, a vaccine is right around the corner but the corner seems like a long way away.”