Delilah Necrason, a server at Portland’s Bao Bao Dumpling House, sterilizes the entranceway Friday. Chef-owner Cara Stadler says she’s “extremely worried” about how restaurants will fare in a pandemic. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Beth Streeter, 83, wiped down her table at the Public Market House in Portland Wednesday before sitting down to enjoy her lunch.

She’s canceled travel plans and stocked up on tuna at home out of concern about the coronavirus, and admits she might start changing her plans to eat out. “I do think about it a lot,” she said.

Kate McCarty, a food preservation educator and food blogger from South Portland, was planning to take her in-laws to the new Bandaloop in Arundel Saturday night, but decided to get takeout instead and eat it at their house.

As concern over coronavirus grows, Maine’s restaurants are taking preventive measures to ensure customers and employees feel safe shopping and dining. They’ve gotten aggressive about hand washing and sanitizing surfaces, and are reminding employees to stay home if they’re sick. Restaurants are reconsidering buffets, and flirting with offering takeout. Dining rooms are getting new footprints as tables and chairs are re-arranged or removed to give customers more “social distance.”

Restaurants already have plenty of practices in place to protect public health. The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention is reinforcing those by urging restaurants to be vigilant about hand washing, following food safety practices outlined in the Maine Food Code, and sanitizing frequently-touched surfaces such as door knobs, salt shakers and ketchup bottles. Portland restaurateurs held a private meeting at Chaval Friday to talk about what else they can do to protect both public health and their own bottom lines.

THE BEST OFFENSE

Despite these safeguards, coronavirus is making some diners think twice about going out to eat. Some Maine restaurateurs say they have noticed a dip in business — downturns they are concerned could grow worse.

As early as Wednesday, chef Cara Stadler of Eighty-Ate Hospitality, the restaurant group that owns Bao Bao Dumpling House and Lio in Portland and Tao Yuan in Brunswick, had seen a big slowdown in reservations and an increase in cancellations and is “extremely, extremely worried.”

“We don’t want to go out of business,” she said. “Everyone is reporting a 30 to 50 percent loss in sales in San Francisco and Seattle.”

Tao Yuan is in a particularly difficult position because Bowdoin College has shut down for the semester, “and everyone’s been basically told to go home and not go out,” Stadler said. Brunswick is also a big retirement community, she added, which means it has a higher population of more vulnerable older people who are more likely to stay at home during the pandemic.

Anticipating that the losses seen in larger cities will eventually reach Maine, Stadler is starting to prepare now. She has instituted a hiring freeze. Takeout business has gone up across the board, so she is trying to set up delivery service from all her restaurants. “I don’t really want to do delivery at Tao, but you’ve got to keep people happy,” she said.

While delivered food still gets handled by restaurant staff, and the delivery person, it’s deemed safer by public health experts because it offers social distance, keeping people out of crowded restaurants where they might be more likely to be exposed to the virus.

A CUSTOMER PERSPECTIVE

Bob Shepherd, a Kittery resident who works in business development for commercial and industrial drones, and his wife Deb, a middle school teacher, are empty nesters who usually eat out a couple of times a week. Shepherd said they would like to continue to support their favorite restaurants during the coronavirus outbreak because “they’re our neighbors, and they support local causes,” but they are prepared to switch to takeout, or cook at home, if necessary. Shepherd is the designated cook, but a Friday shopping trip to his local Hannaford did not exactly stoke his enthusiasm for it.

“The aisles were packed with people,” he said. “I saw some people with two shopping carts, overflowing with toilet paper, kind of just wandering around aimlessly and grabbing things off the shelves.”

Shepherd is also considering following a suggestion that’s been making the rounds online as a way to support restaurants: buying restaurant gift certificates to use later, or to give to someone else. “We’ve got a lot of family around, so we can also use those certificates for birthdays and holidays and things like that” after the crisis is over, he said.

KITCHEN PREP

Although many diners are expressing a similar desire to support their favorite restaurants for as long as they can, restaurant owners realize they need to prepare for the unknown. Protecting nervous staff and customers is front of mind. After Maine announced its first confirmed case last week, the number of reassuring posts outlining restaurants’ new policies grew quickly on social media.

Camden restaurant 40 Paper is installing an additional hand washing sink for its employees, and is creating more space between tables and between bar stools.  (In New York City, such measures are even tougher: a state mandate that went into effect Friday requires restaurants to reduce capacity by 50 percent.)

Otto Pizza is supplying its delivery drivers with hand sanitizer and sanitizing wipes for their phones, and requiring them to wash their hands between each delivery.

Krista Desjarlais, owner of The Purple House in North Yarmouth, has packed up her dishes and utensils and replaced them with disposables, a step she took to settle the nerves of her staff that had to clear the tables. Now customers bus their own tables and the staff comes behind them to sanitize. She’s also stopped offering communal water, sugar and creamers, and is asking customers to consider paying by card or mobile pay to avoid cash exchanging hands.

More drastically, Desjarlais is considering shutting her business altogether until after the crisis passes. Thursday was her busiest Thursday ever, she said. Then came the announcement of the state’s first confirmed case of coronavirus. “It was very busy yesterday, and we were half as busy today,” Desjarlais said on Friday. “I think that’s the way the weekend will go. People just will not want to congregate.”

By Saturday, Desjarlais’ plans had evolved. She announced that she would only offer takeout service – including a curbside option – over the weekend, and after that will close until further notice. She may start a wholesale ice cream business to keep her staff working and revenue coming in until it’s time to re-open.

The Garrison, in Yarmouth, urged diners to continue supporting restaurants. The chef announced Saturday that the restaurant will be closing Sunday night and will be reopening Wednesday serving only a takeout menu, “one that safely and comfortably provides you with humble food, and one that keeps our business and dedicated team afloat during a time when our fate is unknown.” The new menu will be available from 11 am to 9 pm, 7 days a week.

Eventide Oyster Bar is usually one of the busiest restaurants in Portland, even in winter. But as the stock market began plummeting, Mike Wiley, a co-owner, noticed a small drop in business. He and his business partners speculated that consumer fears about the virus are to blame. “I wouldn’t say we’re in the grips of a coronavirus recession or anything like that,” he said last Wednesday.

Beyond its immediate impacts, the virus is on people’s minds even when making long-term plans. Deen Haleem, owner of Tiqa in Portland, said a couple planning their 40th anniversary celebration at his restaurant, to be held in August, told him, “We’re planning on this, but we have no idea what this corona thing is going to look like in July and August.”

Vendors at the Public Market House in Portland said on Wednesday that traffic had definitely been lighter, but they haven’t noticed huge drops in business — yet. Many said they were taking extra precautions, such as wearing gloves and cleaning more aggressively than usual. “I think people like coming in and seeing how clean it is, makes them feel a little bit better,” said Jordan Rubin, co-owner of Mr. Tuna.

At Sisters Gourmet Deli in Portland, according to an employee, customers have been bringing in their own styluses to sign their credit card receipts.

Tyler Crowell, a waiter at David’s Restaurant in Portland, sanitizes the entryway doors at the restaurant after the lunch shift on Wednesday. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

David Turin, owner of David’s Restaurant in Portland’s Monument Square, said Wednesday he’d spotted small signs that his customers were acting on their concerns over the coronavirus. Diners at the lunch buffet asked for hand sanitizer. The restaurant doesn’t normally do a lot of takeout, but for the last week or so, two or three big takeout orders were coming in at dinnertime every day. Business on Monday and Tuesday last week, he said, was a little off. “I think maybe people are starting to back off a little,” he said.

Turin is determined prepare, without succumbing to paranoia. “We’re trying to be sensitive without going overboard,” he said.

Turin’s cleaning staff comes in daily, but they usually concentrate on areas like floors and bathrooms. Now he’s upped surface cleaning in the restaurant to four times a day. Just before and just after lunch and dinner, his staff sanitizes door knobs and door pushes, stair railings, check presenters, menu boards, and salt-and-pepper mills. In the kitchen, he’s relying on normal food-handling practices; he and his cooks, he said, almost never get sick “because we wash our hands a gazillion times every day.”

By Sunday dinner service, David’s will have a six-foot separation between tables, and some bar stools will be stored to allow for greater distance between groups. Turin has also decided to waive event cancellation fees.

As for that lunch buffet, he’s decided to suspend it for now.

TRANSMISSION DETAILS

So are such buffets dangerous? And what about communal foods served during happy hour? If someone sneezes on the bar-top pretzels — or in the granola bin at the grocery store, for that matter — can a customer get sick from helping herself to virus-contaminated food? According to the Maine CDC, as well as federal health agencies, there is no evidence that coronavirus can be spread through food. The primary means of transmission is person to person via respiratory droplets. While it’s theoretically possible that the virus could make someone sick if he grabbed such communal foods and then touched his face, “it’s incredibly unlikely,” says Michele Pfannenstiel, who owns Dirigo Food Safety in Yarmouth and consults for restaurants. “The only places where you see that sort of transmission is where you have incredibly high viral loads,” or large amounts of virus.

Nevertheless, Pfannenstiel is advising her restaurant clients to stop serving communal foods. She suggests, for instance, they serve breadsticks individually instead of in a basket on the table.

Experts say the virus lives longer on hard surfaces, such as on tongs or other serving utensils used at buffets and salad bars. The Maine CDC’s health inspection program, which licenses and inspects restaurants, is advising Maine restaurants to change utensils at buffets frequently, and to provide hand sanitizer for customers eating from the buffet. Pfannenstiel suggests that restaurants with buffets should appoint one attendant and have that person wash their hands every 10 minutes. And customers: Don’t touch the sneeze guard.

Older diners who fall into the at-risk demographic and/or have pre-existing medical conditions, such as heart disease or diabetes, should consider those factors when deciding whether to go out to eat, the Maine CDC says. For these vulnerable populations, Pfannenstiel added, “Now’s the time to order takeout – Uber Eats, Grub Hub.”

Connor McGrath, a Portland comedian, eats out three or four nights a week, grabbing a bite between his day job at a South Portland call center and his nightly performances.

McGrath would like to continue to dine out, but if the situation worsens, he says he’ll switch to takeout or cooking for himself. “I’m not a risk taker, but I don’t want to panic,” he said. “It’s important to support small businesses during this time because they’re going to take a huge hit, so I’d like to do that as long as I can.”

Features intern Kate Rogers contributed to this story.

Related Headlines

Comments are not available on this story.

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.