A lone diner June 1 outside Timber Steakhouse on closed Exchange Street in Portland. The restaurant's back patio, however, was busy. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)
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A handful of Old Port streets were closed Monday in Portland as part of a city effort to promote pedestrian access and allow restaurants and businesses to expand sales and dining to the outdoors.

But by mid-afternoon it was hard to tell anything had changed under the state’s phased reopening during the coronavirus pandemic.

Although blockades had been put up to keep vehicles from driving down streets like Exchange Street, hardly anyone was out and about. While a few members of the public sat on benches near Post Office Park on the cool afternoon, the park was mostly populated by pigeons.

But June 1 still marked the beginning of a reopening phase for restaurants throughout Maine. And while Monday is traditionally not a busy day for restaurants, a few did take advantage of being able to welcome the public back, at least outside.

Lunchtime diners June 1 at Portland Lobster Company on Commercial Street in Portland. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

Most restaurants had expected to be able to offer indoor dining beginning June 1. But those plans changed abruptly last week when Gov. Janet Mills announced restaurants in three counties – Cumberland, York, and Androscoggin – would not be allowed to do so because of continuing community transmission of COVID-19.

One of the few that did reopen Monday was Portland Lobster Company on Commercial Street, where a large outdoor deck overlooking the ocean is the draw. General Manager Ethan Morgan said based on the guidelines from the state, they had never planned to open their indoor dining area.

He said the first day back was “so far, so good,” even though it was still early in the day.

“We’re still trying to figure out our full system,” Morgan said, with the restaurant staff working to ensure customers were kept 6 feet apart.

“We have to try to gauge the customer reaction,” Morgan said.

He said they planned to limit the area to 50 customers, but would also have live music Monday night. He said they will gauge the reaction from the musicians as well as the diners, to see how best to keep it going.

“It’s like opening a restaurant for the first time, instead of being here for 20 years,” he said.

A waitress takes orders June 1 at The Independent Ice Co. on Wharf Street in Portland, one of four city streets temporarily reserved for pedestrians. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

Petite Jacqueline on Market Street was also looking forward to having customers dine outside. However, unlike Portland Lobster Company, the French bistro had planned to have patrons inside, too.

Manager Russell Warren said while they were discouraged about not being able to bring customers inside, they understood there would likely be day-to-day changes in the industry during the pandemic.

“We’re cautiously enthusiastic,” he said.

Warren said the staff still feels lucky to be able to be back at work, and the city’s decision to close selected streets allowed them to have more seating outside (on Milk Street) than they would have had under normal circumstances.

“It’s a very safe step, very practical,” he said, as staff set up the tables outdoors. “It helps a lot of us in the Old Port.”

For now, Petite Jacqueline only accepts reservations. However, he said they have expanded hours to have a baker in the morning come in, and then sell goods through a café window.

Warren said it’s been refreshing to see just how many regulars were making reservations to come back to the restaurant.

“It’s especially encouraging,” he said.

In Falmouth, Rivalries is another restaurant that was able to reopen. Jennifer Meader, the general manager, said the first day back was quiet, but she said the drop in temperatures from the weekend may have played a role as well.

“We had some business for lunch,” she said. “And we had a few calls from people asking about happy hour.”

Meader said the patio at the restaurant just off Route 1 can sit 24 patrons. She said the restaurant is also looking to expand further and is waiting on approval for additional patio space from the town. She said any step toward normalcy is welcome.

“It’s fun to see the excitement from customers,” Meader said. “We just have to do it with different parameters.”

Pylons seal off Exchange Street at the Fore Street intersection in Portland on June 1. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

She said there was frustration when Mills announced restaurants in the county couldn’t open their dining rooms, but she said Rivalries and other restaurants understand Mills is trying to keep people safe.

“It’s frustrating, to say the least,” she said.

However, Meader said Rivalries was lucky because it had been doing a lot of takeout business. Between that and now having patio space, she said they have been able to use all the food they’ve ordered, while other restaurants in the region may have been stuck with supplies they couldn’t use.

Steve Hewins, president and CEO of the Hospitality Maine trade group, said his organization was very disappointed by Mills’ decision to delay indoor dining in the three large counties. He said he was only made aware of her decision an hour before she announced it.

“It was a shock because I had no advance notice,” he said.

Hewins said his group had been giving restaurants guidance under the assumption they could reopen on June 1, and this felt like a “rug being pulled out from under us.”

“Not every restaurant was prepared to open June 1,” he added. “Some were not going to open out of concern. A lot were waiting to see how things went.”

But he said there are countless restaurants throughout Cumberland and York counties that were ready to reopen. Plus, he said, not every restaurant has the capability to offer outdoor dining.

“We’re a supporter of the city’s decision, we think it’s a great idea,” he said of Portland’s plan to close four streets. “It will help a little bit, but not enough.”

He said what a restaurant makes from just limited outdoor dining may help cover rent, but leaves little or no room to earn a profit.

“Every step in that direction is something, but it’s happening at a pace that’s not going to help a lot of people,” Hewins said. “A lot of things are needed to reopen. But the thing that stands out for us is the lack of clarity in how these decisions are being made.”

Hewins also said there isn’t a date these restaurants can look forward to for offering indoor dining.

“There’s no benchmarks for people to follow,” he said. “Four days before opening when people had bought food and brought back employees, we hear you have to pull back. That’s the state of play right now.”

Hewins said many restaurants had bought enough food to offer indoor dining, and now that is just another expense they are expected to shoulder as a loss.

“Restaurants are resilient, they will try to toughen through it,” he said. “But it is another loss.”

He also said there’s no guarantee diners will return for outdoor dining, especially after hearing Mills’ announcement that these counties can’t offer indoor dining as an option.

“The numbers just become a blur to people after a while,” he said. “Most of the public just sees this as a continuing problem, so they are afraid to venture out. Right or wrong, that is the perception. Changes like this just create more anxiety and more resistance to go back out again.”

Hewins said there is a real understanding of the need to be safe, and restaurants want to protect their employees and encourage customers to come back.

“They won’t come back if they don’t feel safe,” he said. “That’s widely known in the industry. I just think we need more clarity in Augusta on how the decision is being made, and the transparency that isn’t there. It’s a continuing saga.”

Restaurants in Portland that want to do business on the four closed Old Port streets – Dana, Exchange, Milk and Wharf – must still obtain permits to do so.

City Hall representative Jessica Grondin said there are several applications pending, which also require an inspection before a temporary license can be approved.

Grondin said about 30 businesses have received temporary licenses for outdoor business throughout the city, including restaurants and craft breweries.