Five restaurants in the Bangor area closed temporarily this weekend after staff members tested positive for COVID-19 or were exposed to people who had tested positive, adding stress to a restaurant industry already struggling with staffing and supply challenges.
Geaghan’s Pub and Craft Brewery, Smoke & Steel BBQ and Seasons Restaurant in Bangor, as well as Mason’s Brewing Co. in Brewer, all were closed for at least two days between this past Wednesday and Monday, due to sick staffers or an exposure. Hero’s Sports Grill in Bangor closed over the weekend of Aug. 7-8 due to a COVID-19 case among staff, then closed again this past weekend due to what it said on Facebook were “unforeseen circumstances.”
Peter Geaghan, general manager of Geaghan’s, said that while no one on his staff tested positive, the restaurant closed on Saturday and Sunday due to a staff member coming into contact with someone who had tested positive — and because the pub was short-staffed to begin with due to previously scheduled vacation days among kitchen staff. The staff member who came into contact with a positive case later tested negative.
“We just did not have enough people to make it work, with people out on vacation and then that exposure. There wasn’t a COVID case here, it’s just that our staffing well was dry,” Geaghan said.
After restaurants and bars were able to fully reopen in the spring of this year, many establishments have found it difficult to return to pre-pandemic staffing levels, as many people employed in the service industry prior to the pandemic have since found jobs in different industries.
And now, with the latest COVID-19 case surge and the particularly infectious Delta variant, a single case among restaurant staff can mean a place has to shut down for several days while the rest of the staff gets tested — even those who have been vaccinated, as they can carry the virus without getting seriously ill.
“In some ways, it’s like going back to how it was before the vaccine,” said Greg Dugal of Hospitality Maine, the trade group that represents Maine’s restaurant and lodging industry. “At least now, with the vaccine, there’s a little more leeway in being able to piece it back together if you lose a staff member for 10 days due to a positive case.”
During normal times, Geaghan said, most restaurants have to contend with challenges around staffing, scheduling, product availability and product price spikes at various points in the year. In his many decades in the restaurant industry, however, he’s never seen all four of those things happen at once.
“We can work around it when it’s just one of those things,” he said. “But when everything is happening at once, it can be really difficult to manage. Luckily we were able to close for two days and not have it affect our bottom line too much. We don’t want to push our staff that far.”
Anecdotally, Dugal said, he finds that restaurant owners and staff all over Maine are enthusiastic about getting the vaccine, as restaurant workers are among Maine workers who deal with the general public face to face on a daily basis.
“Since day one they have been dealing with unmasked people, because you have to take your mask off to eat. I think that’s made servers especially a lot more sensitive to the risks of exposure,” Dugal said. “There’s no way to know how many people in the service industry are vaccinated, of course, but with the fact that the cold weather season is looming, we can only hope that that number will just continue to rise, so we can go back inside safely.”
Whether the other challenges — supply shortages and price increases on certain food items and dry goods — will continue to plague the industry remains to be seen.
“Every day gives you a new set of challenges. Maybe it’s not a COVID case this week, but guess what? You can’t get chicken from your supplier,” Dugal said. “It’s a resilient industry, though. They’ll keep trying, even when it’s really difficult.”