Portland is working on a plan that would give restaurants and retail stores expanded options for doing business outside as they try to rebound from the shutdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Gregory Mitchell, the city’s economic development director, said the plan could take effect June 1 when restaurants in the state’s most populous counties are finally allowed to reopen.
“We want to try to move quickly to help support the local economy,” Mitchell said.
The plan would include temporarily closing half a dozen downtown streets to vehicle traffic to provide more space for outdoor seating and sales.
Mitchell wouldn’t say which streets are being considered. He said a list would be ready ahead of an Economic Development Committee meeting scheduled for 4 p.m. Thursday, May 14.
“We’re trying to be creative,” Mitchell said.
But late Tuesday the city released details of the proposal, which includes the temporary closure of Cotton Street from Spring Street to Fore Street; Dana Street; Exchange Street from Fore Street to Federal Street; Milk Street from Exchange Street to Market Street, and from Silver Street to Pearl Street; Middle Street from Franklin Street to India Street, and Wharf Street.
The city’s announcement also said fees associated with the expansion of existing outdoor dining premises will be waived, and fees associated with parklet applications will be significantly reduced. New outdoor dining permit fees or renewals, as well as fees for sidewalk sale permits, will remain the same, but fees will not be due until 60 days after the permit has been issued.
All permit changes will be valid from June 1-Nov. 1. Permitting processes will be simplified to allow businesses to take advantage of the policy changes as quickly as possible.
If approved by the City Council on Monday, May 18, businesses that take advantage of these temporary changes must follow the state’s applicable COVID-19 Prevention Checklist to safeguard public health. They must also maintain compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The closures are not intended to create public gathering or social space, the city said. Businesses will be required to post signs reminding visitors of proper social distancing and other COVID-19 mitigation recommendations.
The use of outdoor space on streets that are closed will be allowed until 10 p.m, but the street closures will remain in place 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Through traffic and parking will not be permitted at any time, and temporary access will be permitted only for delivery vehicles and residents.
Mitchell said this is an important step for the city because of the restrictions placed on restaurants during the pandemic.
The four-stage economic recovery plan established by Gov. Janet Mills originally prevented all restaurants in the state from reopening until June 1, followed by bars and lodging establishments July 1. Mills last week eased the restrictions for Maine’s 12 rural counties, where community transmission of COVID-19 has not been detected.
But that left the four largest counties, including Cumberland County and the city of Portland, to navigate a different and more difficult path.
With seating inside already limited and the addition of physical distancing guidelines, Mitchell said it would be difficult for restaurants to remain in business while maintaining public health standards.
“Expanding areas outside the premises allows them to generate more business activity and still maintain social distancing and maintain proper protocol during the pandemic,” he said.
Steve Hewins, president of the trade group Hospitality Maine, said his organization is helping to craft Gov. Janet Mills’ checklist for allowing restaurants to reopen. Part of what Hospitality Maine wants the state to do is expand the allowable outdoor dining options.
“We know being outside, especially for dining, is safer than being inside,” Hewins said. “While the distancing requirements will remain the same, the state would prefer people to dine outside versus inside.”
He said that plan also aligns with what restaurant owners would want to do anyway, since physical distancing requirements would severely limit the number of diners allowed inside a restaurant.
“So we talked about expanding where people can be outside (to) sidewalks, parking lots, parking spaces,” Hewins said.
He praised Portland for “moving so swiftly on this,” and said the aggressive attitude to implement a plan could be an example for the rest of the state.
“The city has the ability to execute better than any place in Maine,” he said. “A lot of small towns are looking to do this, but they don’t have the same experience. So a lot of folks will be watching Portland in hopes for similar programs in their communities as well.”
Portland wouldn’t be the first city in the state to take such action. Rockland city councilors on Monday approved at least a partial closing of their Main Street to vehicles during the month of June to give restaurants and shops more outdoor business space.
Hewins said allowing restaurants to offer expanded outdoor dining is important not just for businesses, but for moral support.
“We need some hope in this industry,” he said. “We need some optimism and good news of any kind.”
He said this plan can be an “opportunity for light at the end of the tunnel,” and can be the first step in the right direction when combined with limited indoor dining.
“We have to move in stages,” Hewins said. “This does that.”
Hewins also said part of trying to find a way to reopen restaurants safely is finding a different path than a 14-day quarantine now required of anyone coming into Maine from out of state.
“There are ways to do this that may not require that,” he said. “We are looking for ways to protect the public, protect employees, and protect the visitors without canceling the summer tourism season, which a 14-day quarantine effectively does.”
He said most important is having the public’s trust and for customers to feel it’s safe to return to restaurants.
“In order for people to consider coming back, they have to feel we’ve taken this seriously,” he said.
Hewins said his group is also focused on allowing hotels to reopen in addition to restaurants. Mills’ four-stage reopening plan would not allow lodging businesses to reopen until July 1, a month after restaurants could return. He said both industries rely on each other and are both important to the tourism industry.
“This is going to go on well past the summer tourism season,” Hewins said. “We can get back, but it takes changing mindsets.”