Aaron Harris, owner of the A1 Diner, serves the last sit-down meal for now at the Gardiner landmark. Harris is serving Fred Elwell of Bath. Harris has decided to serve only takeout orders in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Elwell, 83 and a Vietnam War veteran, received a slice of cake and a cup of coffee on the house after stopping at the iconic diner following a medical examination at Togus.

Central Maine restaurants these days are facing the difficult decision of whether to close temporarily due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The iconic A1 Diner in Gardiner announced Monday it for the time being will stop sit-down service, opting to serve only takeout meals.

Owner Aaron Harris said the decision came down to what was best for public safety.

“We just thought it was the best decision for the community that we don’t encourage people to gather here,” he said. “It was one of the most heart-wrenching discussions we’ve ever had. None of our employees are served by being put in dangerous situations.”

Gardiner City Manager Christine Landes said in a Tuesday email to city officials, “The city does not have a provision in code or any ordinance to enforce any restaurant closures.”

She said city officials might contact businesses and “kindly ask them to respect what other similar businesses are doing” — offering only pickup and takeout options, for now.

Aaron Harris, owner of the A1 Diner, puts on disposable gloves Tuesday before preparing a meal behind the counter at the Gardiner landmark. Harris has decided to serve only takeout orders in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Harris said other local business owners will likely be forced to make similar decisions as people opt to stay home to avoid possible exposure to COVID-19.

He said his landmark diner cannot sustain “takeout only” for long. He said it was “eerie” to not have customers sitting at the diner Tuesday afternoon.

“It’s a stopgap measure to keep things going as much as we can,” Harris said. “We don’t have a huge pool of resources to (allow us to) close down and sustain.”

He said customers and his employees have been supportive of the change.

“All of my employees were so understanding and they all said it was the right decision,” Harris said. “Customers came in today specifically to support us in this time. We’ve had a slow day but some good takeout business.”

Gov. Janet Mills said at a Sunday press conference the state was “not ready to shut down the whole restaurant business in Maine or the bars.”

Mills also said ordering takeout food “is not a bad idea.”

Elsewhere in New England, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker has announced that all restaurants, bars or other food and drink establishments may only provide takeout or delivery service beginning Tuesday. As of Tuesday evening, Massachusetts had more than 150 cases of coronavirus infection.

On Monday, Waterville officials ordered all restaurants and bars to close after a meeting of the city’s COVID-19 Task Force. That move could cause a chain-reaction of area towns closing.

On Tuesday, 32 likely or confirmed cases of coronavirus infection were being reported in Maine, including the first in Kennebec County.

Augusta City Manager William Bridgeo issued an emergency order Tuesday, citing authority granted by Mayor David Rollins’s declaration of a state of emergency Monday.

The order stipulates no business where people gather in groups or are in close contact with one another may remain open between the hours of 8 p.m. and 2 a.m. There is an exception for takeout service in the order.

Hallowell also issued a similar emergency order Tuesday, with the same hours of closure — 8 p.m. to 2 a.m. — for businesses where people gather in groups or are in close contact with each other. Like Augusta’s order, takeout service is not prohibited by the order.

Patrick Quigg, owner of the Riverfront Barbeque & Grille in Augusta, said his business will remain open for sit-down service in accordance with city rules. He said he was in completely support of the city regulations.

Quigg said the restrictions should not discourage people from visiting his restaurant. He added his staff sanitizes all menus, salt and pepper shakers and condiment bottles after each party leaves.

He said it was important for local customers to patronize small businesses as much as possible during the coronavirus outbreak, even if it is just buying a gift certificate or a takeout meal.

“It’s a difficult time and this is going to push a lot of small business out of business,” Quigg said. “It’s not going to crush Olive Garden.

“The best thing we can do is support our local people. I have 15 families that I support out of here, it’s not about me. That’s what’s going to hurt.”

In Hallowell, a number of restaurants, including The Liberal Cup and the Quarry Tap Room, decided to close. Liberal Cup owner Jamie Houghton said a number of downtown restaurant owners met to make that decision.

“We agreed that this was the best course of action for our community and decided not to wait for the governor to direct us,” she said.

“We sincerely hope the Legislature will pass emergency (unemployment insurance) protocols so that our staff can get relief they will need.”

Houghton said The Liberal Cup will offer takeout food and growlers for beer to go, the latter being a new addition for the business.

Hallowell City Manager Nate Rudy was not available for comment Tuesday.

Gardiner Main Street Executive Director Melissa Lindley said the city’s restaurants have canceled small events but are still open for business. She encouraged customers to buy gift certificates for restaurants because the income from the certificates could act as a bond for businesses that may not have large cash reserves.

Jesse Hardie, owner of Wander Pizza in Augusta, said Tuesday his restaurant will remain open for takeout and curbside pickup after closing Monday to plan for the upcoming days. He said his biggest concern was being able to pay employees in the event that Wander must close.

Kim Phinney, owner of Lilac Mixology & Catering in Augusta, said she is using this quiet period to help disadvantaged Mainers. She said her business’ events have been postponed through May, reducing its anticipated revenue by as much as $20,000.

Phinney said she is distributing meals to seniors who are living independently but may have some trouble getting fresh meals. She said that population is particularly vulnerable.

Along with serving meals, Phinney has given out more than 150 rolls of toilet paper, one of the most scarce staples at grocery stores.

She said she is looking to extend her meal program into Hallowell, perhaps by dropping off food at the doors of homes or other establishments.

“You know you’re making someone’s day,” she said. “I’m going to miss the paychecks, but I’m happy to be doing this.”


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