Restaurateur Joshua Miranda was supposed to open Via Vecchia, his new eatery on Dana Street in Portland’s Old Port, in March.
But in a scenario now familiar to people around the world, the pandemic changed his plans.
Instead, Via Vecchia opened in early July, after the City Council unanimously voted to close several streets and allow restaurants to procure permits to offer more robust outdoor dining options.
Since June 1, Dana Street and Wharf Street have been closed 24/7 to vehicular traffic, along with Exchange Street between Federal and Fore streets and Milk Street from Silver to Pearl streets.
Permits were initially set to expire Nov. 1, but in a Sept. 30 memo to the Portland City Council, City Manager Jon Jennings announced he will extend the allowances and street closures until Nov. 15.
“This will align the expiration of the temporary permits and street closures with the outdoor dining and sidewalk sale permits that many businesses already had under our existing ordinance,” Jennings wrote.
He also said while the city must reopen streets Nov. 15 “in order to deal with winter snow operations,” he is working with city staff on a plan to extend outdoor dining on sidewalks and parklets until January to help restaurants and retailers “survive” the coming months.
“Staff and I are currently considering ideas that may allow for the continuation of outdoor dining until January 2, 2021,” Jennings said. “Any plan would require a partnership with businesses to ensure winter snow removal operations can be performed effectively and safely.”
According to the memo, city staff will bring a request for councilors to approve an amendment to the emergency proclamation for an extension allowing outdoor dining until at least Jan. 2, 2021, at the council’s Oct. 19 meeting.
Gov. Janet Mills gave Cumberland County restaurants the green light to offer indoor dining June 17 with several restrictions, including prohibiting more than 50 people in a room at one time, with a 6-foot distance between parties.
Some restaurants in the area have been providing indoor service this summer and fall, but lack of indoor space could make it difficult to keep the businesses viable during winter.
Prior to Jennings’ announcement, more than one local restaurant owner said the street closures have kept their businesses alive in the summer and fall, but they are uncertain about the looming winter season.
Miranda, who also owns the Exchange Street bar Blyth & Burrows, last week noted that in New York City, Mayor Bill De Blasio recently made outdoor dining allowances permanent. In Boston, Mayor Marty Walsh recently announced outdoor dining will be extended until at least Dec. 1 if the weather cooperates. Boston’s special outdoor dining rules, and New York’s, were scheduled to expire Oct. 31.
Miranda said he doesn’t think a permanent extension would be possible in Portland because of Maine’s weather, but some extra time would be helpful.
“If we could squeeze out a few more weeks that would be great because I know there are still some people that would be willing to dress up warm and eat outside,” he said.
At Petite Jacqueline, a Market Street eatery specializing in French cuisine, Proprietor Michelle Corry said the restaurant has always had a small patio but “nothing like this year.”
“Having the street blocked off has quite honestly saved us. If it were not for this extended outdoor seating we would be closed by now,” Corry said. “Our customers love it, too, they say they feel like they are in Paris.”
Miranda said when the outdoor dining plan was announced, Via Vecchia also wanted a setup that had a “classic, European bistro-like” feel.
A raised wooden enclosure out front contains tables and chairs, which Miranda said was necessary due to Dana Street’s uneven cobblestone. He has also ordered heaters to help keep outdoor diners warm as the weather gets colder.
Likewise, Petite Jacqueline has purchased heaters and a gas fireplace for its outdoor area. Corry said staff will be seating customers outside “as long as people are willing.” The restaurant will also continue offering curbside pickup, delivery, and meal baskets for those who would rather stay home.
Prior to Jennings’ announcement about the extension, Corry said she did not think ending outdoor seating in November would affect Petite Jacqueline much, because she thinks “it will be too cold” by then to enjoyably eat outdoors. However, she is worried about surviving the winter.
“We will be sticking to protocols and because of that we will only have seven tables inside,” she said. “(I’m) not sure if we will be able to make enough money to pay the bills with the limited seating.”
Miranda said it is going to be “challenging” at Via Vecchia, but he feels optimistic about the future of the restaurant. Serving customers indoor at Blyth and Burrows is going to be harder.
Because of Blyth’s size, Miranda said he “can’t get many people in there” while abiding by COVID-19 restrictions for indoor dining.
Over at The Bar on Exchange Street, owner Mark Deane, who also owns Rosie’s Restaurant & Pub on Fore Street, was a bit more optimistic.
“We can still do indoor dining with restrictions and we’re going to do pretty well with that,” he said. “We’ll make it through to spring and hopefully everything changes.”
He said he is grateful he had the opportunity to offer outdoor seating quickly this summer.
“We were able to get (permission) early and it really helped,” he said. “The city has been wonderful allowing us to be outside, we’re really lucky.”
Going forward, Corry said her advice to restaurant-goers is to be patient with service staff and to understand how much extra work goes into the additional sanitation and distancing required during the pandemic.
“It is an extremely stressful business to run right now,” Corry said. “Also, support your favorite local restaurant if you can, as it is really not an exaggeration that they might not make it through the winter.”