Mar. 6—Maine bar owners and tasting room operators are reacting cautiously to the governor's go-ahead to reopen indoors at the end of the month.
Gov. Janet Mills said Friday that the bars and tasting rooms operated by brewers and distillers can reopen to indoor service on March 26, although they will still be subject to capacity limits. The indoor capacity limits will initially be 50 percent of the maximum for a given space and will increase to 75 percent in late May, before Memorial Day.
Mills said the goal of the new plan, which also reduces the number of people who would be subject to quarantining upon arrival in Maine, is to help recapture business during the spring and summer, when tourism is expected to rebound as more people get vaccinated against COVID-19.
Some businesses are likely to respond quickly to the new rules and begin offering drinks inside at the end of the month. Others said they will stick with plans to reopen later in the spring, but the news makes them more optimistic that they soon will be able to operate as they did pre-pandemic — or close to it.
Isaac MacDougal, the owner of Cocktail Mary at the base of Munjoy Hill in Portland, said he won't reopen indoors until his staff has been vaccinated to protect them from catching the virus. That means he will start offering to-go service on weekends in April, he said, and will reopen his inside space later, most likely in June.
"I'm very excited and happy" about the news of allowing indoor service, MacDougal said.
MacDougal has had to scramble almost from the beginning with his bar, which he opened in November 2019, five months before the pandemic hit the United States.
"I've operated longer with COVID than without," he said, and that has meant providing takeout drinks from his bar, selling warm cocktails on Commercial Street last fall and then shutting down to wait for a vaccine to become available. But MacDougal said he wants to protect his staff, and that's why he will wait.
The desire to protect workers from the disease is also behind the plans for Portland Hunt + Alpine Club to wait until early April to reopen. Even then, it will be outdoors only, at least initially.
Briana Volk, co-owner of the Market Street bar and restaurant, said she's had to open and close several times because of the pandemic and will open for outdoor service only on April 1.
Volk said that move is to protect her workers until they all get vaccinated.
"People have a choice to dine indoors, but the people who work there don't have that choice," she said.
Volk is disappointed in the state's new vaccine rules because they don't provide any increased protection for workers until vaccines are more widely available.
"We're just putting more and more people at risk," she said.
But Volk said it helps to have some sense of the new rules, which will allow her to do something she hasn't be able to do since last March: plan with some certainty.
"This whole year has been something new coming every month," she said.
Margaret Lyons, owner of the Snug Pub on Munjoy Hill, said she closed a year ago and hasn't reopened because she only has seating for four outside. But she, too, will wait to reopen.
Lyons wants to see how many other bars in the city open their doors at the end of March, and how they are doing, before she decides to reopen.
Lyons said she's made it through the year with help from state aid programs and because her landlord has been flexible.
"The Snug is on really solid ground, so I have the luxury of being super-cautious," she said. "(I'm) hesitant to get too excited about the news and I definitely won't be reopening on March 26."
When it appears that other bars are operating smoothly, Lyons said, she will contact her staff members and see when, and if, they feel safe returning to work.
"Everything depends on how comfortable my staff is with meeting with the public, not the other way around," she said. "Our mental health is my priority."
Brewers seem more likely to embrace the new rule quickly, said Sean Sullivan, executive director of the Maine Brewers' Guild.
He said most breweries run tasting rooms to promote their product, and that being forced to move them outdoors, particularly through the winter, has hurt business.
However, brewers also recognize that customers need to feel that it's safe to go back to a tasting room, and the state's go-ahead will help, he said.
"This allows for another way for brewers to serve their customers in a way that the customers feel comfortable," he said. "It's incremental progress" toward allowing business to return, and "meeting the customer at their level of comfort."
Sullivan said beer production in Maine was down by about 20 percent last year. And the rules forcing tasting rooms to outside-service-only came at a tough time for breweries, he said.
Brewers eat through their summer profits during the period from right after Thanksgiving until the end of March, Sullivan said, but they are also trying to save up to order supplies for ramping up production for the busy warmer months.
"This is the point where you have two pressures" on finances, he said, and the limits on indoor operations resulted in a pinch for the brewers. But the change in rules for tasting rooms, he said, provides some hope that things will pick up.
"It's tough, but they're getting through it because there's light at the end of the tunnel," Sullivan said.