King Eider’s Pub in Damariscotta opened for dine-in service – with physical distancing and other safety measures – on Monday. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Chef/proprietor Sara Jenkins didn’t have to think long and hard about whether or not to open Nina June’s dining room to customers on Monday. Her upscale Italian restaurant, which overlooks Rockport’s picturesque harbor, has been serving takeout all spring. Located in one of the 12 counties cleared by Gov. Janet Mills for dine-in service this week, it was eligible to open its doors.

“I am not reopening,” Jenkins said on Friday, having weighed the regulations and the risks and done the financial math. “No friggin way.”

Dana Ramsdell, left, and bartender Rebecca Johnson laugh from opposite sides of a plastic barrier at King Eider’s Pub in Damariscotta. Ramsdell was the first patron when the restaurant opened for dine-in service at lunchtime Monday. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Reached Monday about an hour before lunch, Jed Weiss, co-owner of King Eider’s Pub in Damariscotta had done his own calculations and reached the opposite conclusion. “We have to get back to work. Financially, we can’t wait any longer,” he said. “When (Gov. Mills) did say ‘go,’ we’re going.”

And so it went. Up and down the midcoast – a summer destination for both Mainers and tourists, and home to some of the state’s most celebrated restaurants – owners of sports bars, diners, James Beard-nominated eateries and casual seasonal spots wrestled with the question of whether opening their dining rooms for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic shut them down in March made sense financially and health-wise.

“We want to make sure what we do is not bringing COVID-19 into the community. At the same time, we also need to be realistic,” summed up Raymond Brunyanszki, co-owner of the Relais & Chateaux Natalie’s in the Camden Harbour Inn. He and partner Oscar Verest plan to open both restaurant and hotel on June 1. “That balance between making sure you survive (financially) and that other people don’t get sick – the entire United States is struggling with that right now.”

Just days before the normally busy Memorial Day holiday, restaurants in Aroostook, Piscataquis, Washington, Hancock, Somerset, Franklin, Oxford, Kennebec, Waldo, Knox, Lincoln and Sagadahoc counties got the go-ahead to open. But the list of guidelines that they and their customers must adhere to is long. Moody’s Diner in Waldoboro, which reopened for breakfast on Monday, posted a few highlights on its website, reminding customers to stay 6 feet apart, to limit bathroom occupancy to two, and to wear masks while waiting in line or going to the restroom. A detailed five-page checklist drafted by the state for the restaurants themselves covers sanitation practices, staggered shifts, socially distant training, the number of permitted customers and much more.

The risk-averse 

Since long before the pandemic, restaurants around the country have operated with notoriously thin margins. Exacerbating matters in coastal Maine, many restaurants must make the bulk of their profits in the short (and very much looming) summer season to carry them through the lean days of long winters.

“We all talk about how we are barely making it with our 3 percent margins,” Jenkins of Nina June said. “Now we are supposed to reopen doing 50 percent less business, with probably 10 to 15 percent more employees?” She’d need the extra employees, she explained, to meet the stringent sanitation requirements, but would simultaneously have fewer customers to meet the social distancing requirements. “How is that supposed to work? Are we doubling our prices? I don’t get it.”

Jed Weiss, co-owner of King Eider’s Pub in Damariscotta, puts a menu in a window box in the restaurant’s outdoor seating area. “We’ve got to start somewhere,” he said about opening for in-house dining. “We can’t live scared. We can live concerned. We do our best and we move forward.” Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Then there is the virus itself.  “I don’t feel like we’ve solved this problem in any way, shape or form,” Jenkins continued. “Neither I nor my staff feel comfortable having a bunch of people in here.”

She, like many other Maine restaurateurs, have worked double-time this spring to figure out how to make takeout profitable, or really just to make it barely keep them afloat. Count Sam Richman of Sammy’s Delux in Rockland among that group. He has been toiling in the kitchen with one trusted longtime friend and colleague to make dishes for pickup like matsutake sauerkraut stew and spring tonic ramp and potato salad.

“I don’t want to jeopardize that for who knows what,” he said, “opening the restaurant with who knows what additional risk?”

He’s willing to wait and see, to let other restaurants take the lead. Assuming no virus outbreaks occur, he’ll follow. “I don’t feel like being a pioneer here,” Richman said.

What else would it take for wary restaurants to welcome back diners? More testing, maybe even a piece of paper certifying customers don’t have the coronavirus, ventured Keiko Suzuki of Suzuki Sushi in Rockland. Jenkins would like to see her staff in normal attire, no masks or gloves, and her restaurant jam-packed on a July summer evening. “We’re going to need a vaccine or a cure for any of that to happen,” she admitted. Meanwhile, there’s takeout.

Annette Farrin, bartender at The Penalty Box in Damariscotta, serves a plate of food Monday shortly after the sports bar opened for dine-in service. Restaurant owner Lisa Boucher said regulars missed their gathering spot, and “I just thought it was time. Ten weeks is enough. The virus is a real danger and a real threat, but it also is a real danger and real threat moneywise.” Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The yes camp

At Moody’s Diner, packed on a summer’s day can mean 1,300 customers stopping in for blueberry pancakes, a Bertha burger or a slice of lemon meringue pie. Last year, on May 18, still preseason, the restaurant served 710 people, co-owner and general manager Dan Beck said. If Monday went well, he predicted at 11 a.m. that day, he’d get “maybe 200.”

“You do the math,” Beck said, “710 to 200. That’s not going to cut the mustard.”

Nevertheless, over the last few weeks, he did a deep clean, carefully ticked off a long safety checklist – the menu is paper, counter service is gone, the staff is masked, condiment cups have replaced ketchup bottles – and opened up. “We have to be cautious and wise and be careful and trust things will work out,” he said.

In addition to sanitation and social distancing rules, the state is requiring that restaurants record the names, phone numbers and dining dates and times of its customers. That way, if an outbreak occurs, state officials can employ contact tracing to try to confine it. But Beck, and other midcoast restaurateurs, say some customers strongly object to what they see as an alarming government intrusion into their privacy.

As an iconic Route 1 Maine eatery attached to a hotel, Moody’s is a magnet for tourists, many doubtless from states with much higher incidences of COVID-19 than Maine has seen. Asked if he were worried about arriving tourists, Beck turned the question on its head.

“Are we worried they are going to come or are we worried they aren’t going to come?” he said. “I think we are more worried they won’t come. All Mainers survive on tourism. We make our hay when the sun shines, and the sun is about to shine and we’re not planting any hay.

Dan Burchstead of Phippsburg pays Mollie Jellison, general manager of Bath Brewing Company, for his curbside takeout meal on Monday. As other restaurants in rural counties open up for dine-in service, Bath Brewing Company has chosen to stick with curbside service for now. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“Moody’s, this is our 93rd year. We’ve been around awhile,” he continued. “We might be able to weather more things than a mom-and-pop that has been open for just a year, but if it’s hard on us, it’s hard on everybody.”

Diners who dare (or don’t)

King Eider’s Pub opened its doors at 11:30 a.m. Ten minutes later, Brunswick residents Greg Farr and his wife, Carolyn, strolled in. “We heard that Renys and King Eider’s Pub were open. We thought we’d take advantage,” Greg Farr said.

He admitted to being “a little trepidatious,” but the couple wanted to get out of the house, and support local businesses. He ordered his usual, the fresh haddock sandwich. His wife got the Impossible Burger. They happily observed the masks, the spaced-out tables, the plastic dividers and the cautious staff. “The people at King Eider’s Pub did their best to take a very difficult situation and make it as comfortable as possible for the customers and for their staff, and I think that says a lot,” Greg Farr said.

The same afternoon, at the state’s daily news briefing about the coronavirus, a reporter asked the governor if she is planning dinner out now that she’s allowed restaurants where she lives to reopen. Mills mentioned her age – at over 65, she is in a high-risk group for the virus – and added she has been ordering takeout. Dining out, though? “I’m not planning to go out to dinner any time soon,” she said.

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