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PORTLAND, Maine — On Saturday, a hospitality industry advocacy group in Camden posted on their social media feed Saturday that they’d be purchasing gift cards from local restaurants, bakeries, hotels and inns and giving them away for free “in hopes that the public will still go out and eat.”
The post was tagged #MaineHospitalityUnited, but not everyone thought the message was a good idea.
“[H]ey! Big fan of you all and the industry (income relies on it!) but maybe let’s *not* encourage folks to go out and eat?” one user commented.
The exchange illustrates the balancing act that restaurant owners and industry advocates in the state are facing. For Maine’s hospitality industry — and the workers who derive their incomes from it — many are juggling an interest to boost consumer confidence while also safeguarding their workers and guests against the spread of the coronavirus.
The directives from state leaders have offered only so much clarity. Gov. Janet Mills advised Thursday to limit gatherings of more than 250 people, a limit that the majority of dining rooms in Maine restaurants don’t approach. Mills amended that advisory on Sunday night, recommending limiting public gatherings to 50 people, and 10 if they include high-risk individuals like people over 60 or those with compromised immune systems.
But many restaurants in the state have dining room capacities that exceed 50 people. Mills said Sunday that she’s “not ready to shut down the restaurant [and bar] industry” in Maine.
As of Sunday, more than a dozen restaurants in Maine’s largest city have set up takeout, delivery and curbside drive-through services over the last few days, hoping to soften the financial hit as the coronavirus arrives in Maine.
The Speckled Ax, a popular coffee-shop in downtown Portland, is one of those to switch their services Sunday, in hopes of creating a “streamlined, contact-free experience” where they can still provide a cup of coffee to go without having to spend long in the cafe’s intimate quarters.
Speckled Ax founder Matt Bolinder said his main focus is on keeping employees healthy, and paid, and preventing the cafe from “serving as a vector for community contamination.” As a business owner, however, Bolinder said he can’t help but also think about revenue. He just put more than $100,000 into renovating a second location near Ocean Gateway Terminal.
After a week where growing concern from public officials concealed an alarmingly business-as-usual activity in commercial spheres, he worries that the general public isn’t as tuned in to the crisis as they need to be.
“I don’t think people are taking the fact that you can be symptom-free for days while [still] spreading it seriously enough,” Bolinder said.
Maine Beer Company, a brewery in Freeport, shut its tasting room down for on-premise food and beverage service on Sunday. They’re offering house-made pizzas and bottles to go at their U.S. Route 1 location. Patrons can pay for it through an online ordering system, though legally, they still have to enter the facility and show identification.
As of Monday, more than 20 Portland restaurants have pivoted to some version of takeout or delivery services only, with many offering curbside service by request. Some offer to bring your food right to your car door. Meals can be easily packaged to go and getting takeout from restaurants helps mitigate the strain on area supermarkets and grocery stores, where many shelves were depleted over the weekend. Breweries and tasting rooms have different obstacles.
The noodle bar Mi Sen now offers “contact-free delivery” at their Congress Street location in the West End. The popular East End restaurant Blue Spoon, where capacity does not exceed 50, now offers curbside takeout and is developing a delivery service. Chaval, an upscale new American restaurant on Pine Street, offers curbside takeout by request as well, and will soon be offering freezer-ready meal kits for patrons to take home.
A group of about 50 restaurant owners in Portland have been discussing how the industry should respond. That group met privately in person last week, and have traded more ideas via a group email thread.
In the thread, the owners discuss increased sanitization protocols, including wearing disposable gloves while busing dishes, have traded ideas toward the sustainability of their businesses, like how to apply for federal funding, working out childcare plans for workers and liability concerns if a guest has the virus. They have also been compiling an “estimated disaster economic injury worksheet for businesses.”
Some in the email thread also traded public relations tips for how to conduct messaging, balancing an interest in “increasing consumer confidence” amid the coronavirus crisis with the reality of social distancing.
“Because of the rapid information changes in this case,” one public relations adviser wrote, “make sure your statement does not have any messages that could/would feel regrettable or have a negative public response in 2 days, 2 weeks, 2 months.” Examples of messaging like “Please come join us!” and “Join us tonight!” are deemed not appropriate.
As some of them would otherwise be preparing for St. Patrick’s Day crowds, Portland restaurant and bar owners and workers are anticipating that the situation is fluid. The popular Vietnamese restaurant Cong Tu Bot announced Sunday morning that they’d pivot to curbside service and delivery as of that evening’s service. By dinnertime, they decided to close indefinitely.
Watch: What you need to know about handwashing during coronavirus