Monkitree Gallery owner Clare Marron talks about changes they’ve made to reopen during an interview Thursday in downtown Gardiner. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

GARDINER — When springs starts heating up to summer, Clare Marron generally sees customer traffic to Monkitree, her shop and gallery, pick up.

People come looking for gifts to mark weddings and housewarmings, or they are hunting up gifts for hosts to be visited during summer vacation travel.

But the summer of 2020 is shaping up to be a different kind of season entirely, as Maine and the United States continue to observe public health restrictions on gatherings and in-person interactions to slow the spread of the highly contagious coronavirus.

Monkitree owner Clare Marron sprays a point of sale terminal with alcohol to sanitize it between customers Thursday at the shop and gallery in downtown Gardiner. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

Like most other businesses on Water Street, Monkitree has been closed to the public for weeks under an executive order by Gov. Janet Mills at the end of March closing non-essential businesses. Not long after, Mills issued a stay-at-home order that further curtailed public activity.

But now as those restrictions are starting to be lifted in the state’s more rural counties including Kennebec, Marron and other business owners are working through how to safely allow customers back through their doors, including limiting the number of customers allowed in based on square footage, providing hand sanitizer and wearing masks.

“Life is returning to downtown Gardiner,” Gardiner Main Street Executive Director Melissa Lindley said. “It’s nice to see cars parking on the street and people walking around.”

While Gardiner is not a tourism destination, Lindley said its business owners benefit from the increased traffic through the region in the warm months.

“Everyone is hopeful for a return to more normal circumstances,” she said. “‘We’re all watching to see what happens.”

Marron reopened May 14 with reduced hours, so people can get in but also to allow time to set up one-on-one shopping for those who are not comfortable being around other people.

“Nobody has taken me up on that yet,” she said, “but I usually have only one customer at a time.”

Customers leave Renys Wednesday on Water Street in downtown Gardiner. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

At the south end of Gardiner’s downtown, Renys Department Store has reopened to the public. Like all the stores in the Newcastle-based chain, Gardiner’s store closed for several weeks, and then reopened to provide curbside pickup for customers.

As of mid-week, nine of 17 Renys stores were open, including the Gardiner store, which opened Monday. The rest, with the exception of the Portland store and the Bath store, which is undergoing renovations, were expected to open by Friday.

Company President John Reny said he’s been touring stores since they’ve started opening up again, and shoppers have been coming through the doors.

“It’s been pretty busy,” he said. “There’s a lot of pent-up desire and wants.”

And for the most part, customers have been following the guidelines issued by state health officials — wearing masks and using the hand sanitizer that has been provided, Reny said. Most who have been to grocery stores in the last two months are familiar with the requirement.

If customers come without a mask, he said, they’re being offered one.

“We’re not the police,” Reny said. “Some people have medical conditions, so that’s up to them. But the vast majority are wearing masks, either the ones you buy or the ones you make.”

Customers are being offered hand sanitizer and a mask if they come in without one. People have been following these guidelines for weeks in grocery stores, so it’s not new for them.

“Everybody’s got the drill,” Reny said. “If everybody pays attention and does what they’re supposed to do, we’ll get through this.”

Some businesses were not open when shutdown orders were issued two months ago, but they are making preparations to open in the coming weeks.

Painters work Wednesday at Domino’s Pizza on Water Street in downtown Gardiner. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

That’s the case for Gardiner’s Domino’s, which is expected to reopen its doors for contact-less pickup and delivery in June, but its path to this point has taken a different route.

The restaurant, along with the building that houses it, was heavily damaged by smoke and water from a fire that broke out in the early hours of Dec. 28, 2018. Since then Fernando Jantorno Stelser, who owns the franchise with his wife Hadria Vale Jantorno, has been working to bring  the pizza restaurant back.

While work on the restaurant has continued during the pandemic shutdown, Stelser said it delayed his opening date; without the shutdown Domino’s would already be open.

“We’re excited, we’re almost open,” he said, adding that he’s looking for people to work at the restaurant.

Not far from Domino’s, Alan Claude and Erin Skehan have been working on the buildings in the Dingley Block they bought from Gardiner Main Street with plans to open a gallery for their business Alan Claude Inc. in one of the ground floor retail spaces, and apartments and a studio for the business on the upper floors.

Claude, whose work is featured on the state’s tourism publications like the travel guide and highway map for this year, said this week that the opening date for the gallery is scheduled to take place in the third week of June.

Not every Water Street business will emerge from the closure.

At the end of March Frosty’s, the doughnut shop at the corner of Water and Bridge streets, closed. Owners Nels and Shelby Omdal said they were also closing the Freeport location to stem the losses they were anticipating as a result of the near-immediate shut down of the economy in March.

A sign at Pasta’z restaurant Wednesday on Water Street in downtown Gardiner. The Italian restaurant has been permanently closed during the coronavirus pandemic shutdown. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

Other businesses, both new and established, have also decided to close permanently, including Pastaz Italian Cuisine, which has been in business on Water Street for a decade, and Able Body Functional Fitness, which opened in October.

To keep people up to date with the latest information, Gardiner Main Street has compiled a list of businesses that are reopening and a list of business services available in the city on its website, gardinermainstreet.org/businesses-reopening.

From her vantage point on Water Street, Marron has seen the foot traffic go by her shop. The Gardiner Food Co-op, which has been open or providing curbside pickup for grocery orders, has drawn a steady stream of people throughout the spring.

“It’s not like people are just like: ‘Let’s go to Gardiner for the day and walk around,’ because it’s not like (stores and restaurants) have been open,” she said. “With better weather, I think we’ll see more people getting out and walking around. And with more things open, there’s more reason to do it, too.”

Opening businesses is not going to magically restart the state’s economy, Marron said.

“People have to feel comfortable spending money,” she said.

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