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Brian Langley has owned and operated the Union River Lobster Pot in Ellsworth for more than three decades. But all that experience couldn’t have prepared him for opening his restaurant amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It feels like this is the first year of the business,” Langley said.
As Maine gets ready for the summer, restaurateurs have had to reorganize their businesses for a tourist season clouded with questions. Amid that uncertainty, Langley, who is also a former Republican state senator, saw an opportunity to create a training program for restaurant workers based on Gov. Janet Mills’ five-page checklist for Maine restaurants operating during the pandemic.
The Hospitality Maine COVID-19 Restaurant Readiness online course launched Friday. It allows Maine’s restaurant workers to earn a “digital badge” — essentially a certificate — that shows they have been trained on the COVID-19 safety measures imposed by the state. The roughly two-hour online course features three modules and requires takers to pass a test.
The program was developed by Eastern Maine Community College in Bangor in coordination with Hospitality Maine, the trade association for Maine restaurants and hotels, in roughly two weeks.
Langley suggested that Hospitality Maine work with Maine’s community colleges to develop the program. It shows the industry can “get out in front, get our people trained, work with the policy makers to show we can make this happen as well, and that we can do our part to make things better,” said Langley, who is also on the board of the educational foundation of Hospitality Maine.
“It’s really incumbent on the industry to turn around and kind of self regulate and manage this,” Langley said.
The program is free for anyone who wants to earn their badge, said Steve Hewins, president of Hospitality Maine.
“It’s about how to keep yourself safe and how to mentor customers to do the same,” Hewins said. People need to be clear not only on what the new rules are but how to implement them, he said.
“If you don’t take this seriously as a person in this industry, you aren’t going to be long for this industry,” Hewins said. “If you don’t do these things, people are not going to come back to your restaurant or hotel.”
Under Mills’ reopening plan, restaurants in rural counties were allowed to reopen earlier this week, with restaurants in more populous counties — including Penobscot and Cumberland — allowed to open on June 1. But those openings come with a variety of new rules to ensure customer and worker safety.
The state’s checklist for restaurants, which was developed in coordination with Hospitality Maine, is five pages long and focuses mostly on expanded cleaning and disinfection procedures and social distancing measures.
For example, dining room tables must be six feet away from each other, and no more than 50 people are allowed in any one room. Counters must have physical barriers, such as plexiglass, if staff and customers can’t physically distance across them. All condiments, as well as crayons for children, must be single use. Menus must be single-use plastic or laminated and disinfected after every use. And restaurants must record all customer names and phone numbers for potential contact tracing.
To help with distancing measures, many restaurants are expanding outside. Some Maine municipalities are developing plans to convert outdoor spaces for restaurant seating, which in some cases means banning vehicular traffic on streets.
At the national level, groups like ServSafe and the National Restaurant Association have rolled out reopening guidance and training videos, but requirements for restaurant reopening vary from state to state.
While there is no legal requirement that any restaurant or staff take the training, the credentials earned from completing the program could be posted near the entrance of the restaurant, said Chris Winstead, director of workforce development at Eastern Maine Community College.
Seeing the certifications could signal to customers that restaurants and their employees have committed to applying best practices “to ensure they are protecting their patrons from exposure to COVID,” Winstead said, adding that eventually insurance companies providing coverage to restaurants could want to see staff complete this kind of training.
But regardless of how restaurants implement the new rules, it remains to be seen if patrons, especially out-of-state tourists, will journey to Maine’s restaurants.
Out-of-state visitors make up roughly 35 percent of all Maine restaurant sales, said Hewins of Hospitality Maine. And currently Maine is one of 30 states that have required out-of-state visitors to quarantine for 14 days upon entering, making summer trips to the state far more onerous than in previous years.
Langley said he plans to require his staff at the Union River Lobster Pot to complete the training before the restaurant’s planned opening on June 13. But he’s expecting to need far fewer staff than in previous years. He’s reducing his workforce from 37 to just 17 people because he doesn’t know what level of business to expect.
“It’s like you’ve gone and thrown a grenade right into my business,” Langley said. “It’s devastating. It’s really going to be really difficult for everyone to survive.”
Watch: Janet Mills outlines her plan to reopen