Krista Cole, owner of Sur Lie restaurant in Portland, sits in her empty establishment on Thursday afternoon on Jan. 6, 2022. Cole was forced to close for the day due to an illness-induced shortage of workers. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Krista Cole knows firsthand just how delicate a balancing act restaurant owners face to keep their doors open and protect staff and diners from the fast-spreading omicron variant.

Cole had to close her downtown Portland restaurant, Sur Lie, on Thursday because of an illness-induced staff shortage. Sitting in the empty tapas restaurant, she said there were not enough people left to open after a staffer exposed to COVID-19 outside work stayed home and another was sick with a cold.

“Fortunately the staff here wasn’t exposed,” Cole said. “We are getting creative with staffing for the weekend, so fingers crossed it’s just one night, but not everyone is that lucky.”

Petite Jaqueline restaurant’s outdoors seating stands empty in Portland on Thursday afternoon Jan. 6, 2022, after COVID-19 exposure among the staff forced it to close for three days. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

The emerging omicron variant is the latest stumbling block for restaurants, with cases expected to skyrocket soon in Maine. The spreading virus, occasional restaurant closures and ongoing staffing shortages are adding more financial stress on top of already reduced business hours, supply chain issues and rising costs.

Restaurant business has recovered since early 2020, when they had limited or no service. They recovered to pre-pandemic business levels last spring, when vaccines became available to many Mainers and diners. By June, restaurant tax revenue, which reflects business activity, had risen 75 percent to $332 million compared with the same month in 2020, when Gov. Janet Mills reopened dine-in services in all Maine counties. But the resurgence of COVID-19 began shortly after and rose to record levels by December, leaving restaurant owners with tough choices.

“We need people to feel safe and want to come out to eat,” Krista Cole, owner of Sur Lie, said. “But the spike in cases recently has certainly had an impact on our business.”

Sur Lie restaurant in Portland was closed on Thursday, Jan. 6, 2022, due to an illness-induced shortage of workers. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

The restaurant has limited the days and hours it is open to contain costs. It also was not the only one forced to close because of the coronavirus. Just a few blocks away, Petite Jacqueline, a bistro, posted a note on its door saying it would be shut Wednesday through Friday because of a positive case.

While many restaurants are still busy, that is not translating into a lot more money. To hold onto workers, restaurants have raised wages and improved benefits. Many also are paying for personal protective equipment, testing for staff and time off for sickness.

“The restaurant has been very busy, but we’re making less money than we have made in previous good years by a lot,” David Turin, chef and owner of David’s Restaurant in Portland’s Monument Square, said. “I think we’ll probably lose money this winter.”

Costs are up, including utilities and insurance. Takeout food costs more because of extra packaging and utensils, and he pays for about 1,000 masks a week for staff and patrons. Turin also is footing the bill for staff to take COVID-19 test kits priced at $20 to $40 each.

Turin said he is paying $1,200 in the first week of January to employees who tested positive for COVID-19. He thinks paying employees when they are sick is helping the restaurant avoid an outbreak, because workers feel comfortable staying home and deem their work environment safe.

The owners of King Eider’s Pub in Damariscotta said that like other restaurateurs, they must balance being able to continue operating with making sure workers are safe and compensated. Credit: Courtesy of King Eider’s Pub

Safety is also a top concern at King Eider’s Pub in Damariscotta, where owners Todd and Sarah Mauer said their clientele tends to be older people and families. Michelle Corry, co-owner of Petite Jacqueline, agrees with that focus, saying the pandemic has caused restaurant owners and staff to rethink what is important and recognize that staff want to feel appreciated.

“We do need money to stay open, but the safety, sanity and lifestyle of us and our staff reminded us to take a step back and reprioritize everything,” Corry said.

The restaurant pays for testing for employees, requires masks and has continued with the sanitizing protocols required by the state earlier in the pandemic. It is reconsidering putting the plastic guards that had been around the bar back up, and once again spacing tables at 6 feet apart.

Those nods to staff and customer safety mean a lot to workers, Andrew Moat, a former pizza delivery driver for Portland Pie Co. in Brunswick, said. Moat left his job a couple weeks ago because of concerns that managers weren’t following COVID-19 protocols. Workers at the Portland location of Portland Pie walked off the job last Sunday citing similar safety concerns.

Moat said he’s heard from a current worker in Brunswick that management has tightened measures since word of the Portland walkout got out. That is making him reconsider going back to work as he likes his coworkers and the social aspect of the job.

“I like being the pizza guy. I want to go back,” he said. “If you do the right thing, that’s what keeps you open.”

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...