My wife and I moved to Portland 36 years ago. We left Los Angeles just a few weeks before the 1984 Summer Olympic Games. A few weeks later we were part of the crowd that lined Congress Street to cheer Maine’s hometown Olympic heroes – Joan Benoit Samuelson and Bill Swift.
I’ve now lived in Maine for more than half of my life. We’ve raised two daughters here – the first was just 3 months old when we moved in, the second a Mainer born and raised. Both daughters eventually left for education and jobs in places far away, but both have returned to Maine along with their husbands. Our first grandchild was born here, 8 months ago.
When we told our friends and colleagues in L.A. that we were leaving for Portland (“no, the one on the East Coast”) one of them, who grew up here, asked why we wanted to live in “a dirty little town with a lot of bars.”
He obviously hadn’t been back to Portland in a long time.
Even back in 1984, one of the things that made Portland attractive was its food and restaurant scene. I can still remember reading a story in The Wall Street Journal shortly after we arrived here that praised the city’s love of restaurants; it said there were more restaurants per capita in Portland than in any U.S. city except San Francisco.
In those early years, our go-to place was Alberta’s, a little bistro on Pleasant Street where the food was great and the staff would bend over backward to make us feel welcome. When our older daughter was finally eating solid foods, they would even prepare simple plates just for her, while her mom and I dined on delectable dishes like andouille-stuffed lobster and melt-in-your-mouth sauteed chicken livers.
Alberta’s, of course, is long gone. But dozens of other restaurants followed, earning Portland a crescendo of acclaim as one of the most food-centric cities in America.
But the past 3 1/2 months during the coronavirus pandemic have tested the city’s restaurants and bars in a way none of their predecessors were ever challenged. Now they are finally emerging from the darkness, given the chance to slowly, safely reopen under state and city guidelines that allow expanded outdoor seating and limited indoor dining. We should be supporting and celebrating their return.
Instead, however, the summer’s first weekend nights produced selfish scenes in the Old Port that suggest some of us don’t know we’re in the midst of a pandemic, or just don’t care. Either way, the behavior on Wharf Street threatened not only the public health but the health of Portland’s restaurant community.
You don’t want to wear a mask? Fine, then eat at home. You don’t want to maintain a safe distance from other people? OK, no one is forcing you to go out for a beer. But if you do decide to go out, you must accept responsibility not only for yourself, but for those around you – and that includes the owners, hosts, chefs, servers, dishwashers, suppliers, farmers, and anyone whose livelihood depends on a thriving dining culture.
If you really want to support these businesses and workers, you should be doing everything you can to keep them running by following the protocols that let them operate as safely and profitably as possible during the pandemic. Not doing so – not wearing a mask and not maintaining safe social distance – risks the spread of COVID-19 to other diners and to the very workers you want to help.
We’ll have no one to blame but ourselves if almost four decades of restaurant excellence in Portland ends with a return to layoffs, desolate dining rooms, and silent kitchens.
Gov. Janet Mills isn’t to blame. The Portland City Council isn’t to blame. The blame lies on us if we ignore the science and the reality of the situation, and if we take our cues from a shameless Trump administration that denies and lies about the severity of the pandemic. It will be on us and our unmasked, undistanced, narcissistic need to have a “normal” burger and beer.
It’s natural to want this to be over, to want to return to the way things were. But realistically, we’re not there. Personally, I’m not quite ready to eat out. But I’m ordering take-out as frequently as I can. If you’re among those who are willing to dine out, please do it safely and responsibly; if an outdoor dining or drinking area is crowded, find another place; don’t make businesses choose between your patronage and enforcing the rules. Be kind and considerate, and tip generously.
With the Fourth of July holiday upon us, please don’t behave in a way that contributes to making Portland’s new normal look like its old normal, that “dirty little town with a lot of bars.”
Mo Mehlsak is managing editor of the Portland Phoenix. He can be reached at [email protected].