Kenny Moon of Cape Elizabeth quaffs a beer outside at Bunker Brewing Co. in Portland on Friday March 26, 2021. Though Gov. Janet Mills allowed bars and taprooms to reopen to indoor service on Friday, Bunker co-owner Jay Villani wants to see vaccination numbers increase before he seats people inside again. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Tyler Inman talked excitedly about being able to open his taproom indoors on Friday. Business will begin in earnest at Trinken Brewing, open for just two days before pandemic restrictions took effect last March.

“This is our first shot at actually having our customer base come in and enjoy the comfort of our taproom,” said Inman, the founder and co-owner of the West Bath brewery, which has been selling to-go orders and to distributors. “It’s been a long road, especially as new entrepreneurs.”

In a nod to the tourism season, Gov. Janet Mills allowed bars and taprooms to reopen to indoor service and relaxed capacity limits starting Friday. While Inman is excited about opening inside, other breweries and bars are moving cautiously amid rising coronavirus cases and a relatively small number of vaccinated people.

Co-owners Tyler Inman (left) and Ryan Bisson of Trinken Brewing Co. in West Bath, which had to close indoor service only two days after it opened in March 2020 due to pandemic restrictions. Inman said he was excited to reopen indoor seating on March 26, 2020, per the relaxed orders of Gov. Janet Mills ahead of the tourism season. Credit: Courtesy of Trinken Brewing Co.

Whether to reopen indoors has been a tough decision for many owners, who have operated at limited capacity or served outdoors while struggling to stay afloat and spending more to conform to pandemic guidelines.

“I’m probably not letting people into the taproom until I see the numbers go the other way and give people a chance to get vaccinated, maybe at the end of May,” said Jay Villani, co-owner of Bunker Brewing Co. in Portland, who expects to get his first vaccination on Wednesday. “I can wait another month until it feels comfortable and I can keep my employees safe.”

Bars and tasting rooms have been closed to indoor service for most of the past year, although those with restaurant licenses were allowed to be open with capacity limits. They were slated to reopen last Nov. 2, but a spike in COVID-19 cases then delayed indoor seating. While many saw sales drop 50 percent or more, most were able to keep doors open, but it’s not clear how much easing capacity limits will help taprooms, many of which are small.

From left (clockwise): Kenny Moon (left) and Thomas Hill have lunch from the Vietnamese Sandwich food truck outside Bunker Brewing Co. in Portland on Friday March 26, 2021; Kenny Moon of Cape Elizabeth carries beer outside at Bunker Brewing Co. in Portland on Friday March 26, 2021; A pair of friends enjoy lunch and a beer outside Bunker Brewing Co. in Portland on Friday March 26, 2021; Thomas Hill of Cape Elizabeth sits outside Bunker Brewing Co. in Portland on Friday March 26, 2021, having beer and a sandwich with a friend. Credit: Troy R. Bennett | BDN

“Our taproom is pretty small so right now we’re not serving indoors at all,” Erik Flye, general manager of Norway Brewing Co., said.

With social distancing between tables and barricades, the Norway brewery wasn’t able to use the taproom part of its indoor space and it was hard to get even half of the normal customers inside. It added heating to a patio and has been serving strictly outdoors.

“We are giving ourselves some time to see if we can set it up right and make it safe inside,” Flye said. “We would definitely need a better reason to take a risk than some rules being changed.”

Friday’s indoor openings were part of Gov. Janet Mills’ plan to reopen the economy before the tourism season, which was hurt by closures last year. She increased indoor capacities to 50 percent of licensed capacity today. That will be increased to 75 percent before Memorial Day. Mills also is allowing people from other New England states and those who are fully vaccinated from other states into Maine now without quarantine or testing. On May 1, people from all states can visit without quarantine, with potential exceptions for those from states with virus spikes.

It comes as new cases of COVID-19 remain stubbornly high, with the state reporting 253 new cases on Friday, the third day in a row that cases topped 200 and the highest single-day amount since early February.

The availability of vaccine doses is increasing, as are people eligible to get them. Mainers in their 50s became eligible for the vaccine on Tuesday. About two-thirds of people aged 60 and older have received vaccines so far. All Mainers 16 and older can get the vaccine starting on April 19.

Sean Sullivan, executive director of the Maine Brewers’ Guild, said the restart of indoor service will help bars and taprooms gauge how comfortable customers are and better plan for the summer season. One in five tourists, or 9 million visitors to Maine, stopped at a brewery while here in 2017, according to the guild. The beer industry has a major economic effect on the state, contributing $656 million in 2019, according to the Brewers Association, a national industry group. Maine ranked 19th among the 50 states with 133 craft breweries in 2019.

Despite operating at limited capacity, most craft brewers have held their own during the pandemic. Three closed permanently, one changed ownership, one closed and is being reopened under new ownership and 15 have been newly licensed since the start of 2020, including new breweries and second locations for existing breweries, Sullivan said.

“We see light at the end of the tunnel and are optimistic about our future,” Sullivan said.

Other businesses have expanded since the start of the coronavirus in Maine. Shahin Khojastehzad, co-owner of Novare Res Bier Cafe in Portland’s Old Port, got a restaurant license so he could serve indoors after focusing on takeout early in the pandemic. Still, he plans to keep his current limits of 50 people total inside and outside as younger hospitality workers remain ineligible for vaccines under the state’s age-based plan, which has upset many in the industry.

“I totally understand where Janet Mills is coming from because she’s definitely getting a lot of pressure from the business community, so I understand her hand was kind of forced,” he said. “But as a person in the hospitality industry, I was really upset that we’re opening up to tourists but we’re not considered eligible for the vaccine yet.”

Mitch Slattery, manager of Depot Street Tap House in Bridgton understands the hesitation in Portland, but he is eager to reopen indoor seating today. The taproom has been seating people outside in a covered area with firepits. Slattery said Depot Street has been getting a fair number of calls from people wanting to sit inside.

“We’re in rural Maine and we have enough space to spread everyone out,” he said. “As an employee, I feel pretty safe.”

The caution by some may seem an odd reversal from hopes earlier in the pandemic to open up sooner, but safety concerns are guiding the decisions.

“Just because the governor says we could have more people, it doesn’t mean that’s going to be the case,” said Villani, who also owns three restaurants in Portland, including Salvage BBQ. “It’s not really worth killing myself over, figuratively and literally.”

Avatar photo

Lori Valigra

Lori Valigra, senior reporter for economy and business, holds an M.S. in journalism from Boston University. She was a Knight journalism fellow at M.I.T. and has extensive international reporting experience...