Chairs sit on tabletops at Three Dollar Deweys last week. The Portland bar and restaurant planned to reopen on Monday, before Gov. Janet Mills indefinitely delayed the date for indoor dining in Maine’s most populous counties. AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty

Dave Mallari, owner of The Sinful Kitchen in Portland, couldn’t control his feelings Wednesday afternoon when he learned that Gov. Janet Mills had indefinitely postponed the reopening of indoor dining in Cumberland, York and Androscoggin counties.

“I’m shaking right now I’m so angry,” he said. “This is the first time I’ve really been angry during this. I’ve been understanding during this whole process, and we’ve made modifications. But this is so upsetting.”

Restaurant owners who had planned to open their dining rooms Monday reacted with frustration and anger when they heard the news that indoor dining is once again on the back burner, partly because they’ve already done so much to prepare for reopening. Now food will spoil and reservations that have already been made will have to be canceled. And they wonder: When the state eventually sets a new reopening date, why should they trust it?

“We had food and beverage delivered to each location this morning for thousands of dollars,” said Joe Christopher, owner of Three Dollar Deweys in Portland and Saltwater Grille in South Portland. “That money is gone. It’s totally irresponsible. Four days?”

At Petite Jacqueline in Portland’s Old Port, at least half of the indoor seating had been removed for social distancing, and customers had already made reservations for Monday. The restaurant is also expanding its outdoor dining and has added a new takeout window, and will go ahead with those changes – but that didn’t take the sting out of the news.

“It’s definitely a little frustrating to learn so late,” said Michelle Corry, who owns the restaurant with her husband, Steve. “I’m sure (Mills) is doing what she has to do, and I totally get it. Safety and health is more important than anything else, certainly, but we spent a lot of time getting this together properly and following all the guidelines, which weren’t easy. A little more notice would have been nice.”

Corry feels bad for the restaurants that don’t have any space for outdoor seating.

“I think that puts them in a pretty tough position,” she said.

Christopher said he has filed an application for outdoor dining at Dewey’s, “but that was to enhance the inside volume to get to something that will pay the bills.”

“It’s unconstitutional and illegal,” Christopher said of Mills’ decision. “We should be able to run our businesses under the licenses we already have, as we see fit, and the public should be able to choose.”

Steve Hewins, president of Hospitality Maine, an industry group, said he doesn’t know how many restaurants the delay might affect, but it will be many.

“These are obviously the three most populous counties, so it’s got the predominance of restaurants,” he said.

He said the members of Hospitality Maine are “not happy at all,” but “we’ve got to defer to the governor on this. We have no choice.”
He said the organization is encouraging restaurants to add or expand outdoor dining, and to continue with curbside takeout.

Mallari has been doing a good curbside takeout business, but he has limited room for outdoor dining – just enough for a couple of picnic tables. To prepare for reopening his doors on Monday, he had reconfigured his two dining rooms, losing seating for about 10 people to meet social distancing requirements. He put in a new sound system, updated the bar, refinished the floors, and painted. He had planned to start expanding his hours on Monday.

Mallari received a federal payroll protection grant, but it will only last until the end of June. He was banking on opening Monday “because then we can get some money put away for the coming months.”

“That’s the tough part,” he said. “We’ve been working with a light at the end of the tunnel. Now we’re literally stuck in limbo.”

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