Caleb Landry, who has mixed drinks at Blyth & Burrows since the Old Port cocktail bar opened three years ago, led a visitor from the street-level bar, up a few stairs past a second-level bar, and pushed open a bookcase that doubles as a secret door.

The landing behind the bookcase looks down on a third bar, currently used as a staging area for Blyth & Burrows, a change from its former life as The Broken Dram.

“A year ago, this would have been loud, packed and sweaty,” Landry said as he looked down the small staircase at a silent room cluttered with bottles but devoid of people.

Bartender Caleb Landry mixes a cocktail behind the bar at Blyth & Burrows. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Loud, packed and sweaty is no longer an acceptable environment for bars in the Old Port or anywhere else in Maine. In an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, the administration of Gov. Janet Mills ordered the closure of bars back in March.

Her reopening plan originally included bars in Stage 3, which would have allowed patrons back inside on July 1. Instead, bars have remained closed indefinitely. On Thursday, Mills said she has no plans to change the current restrictions.

“Too soon to do so,” she said. “When it comes to bars in particular, indoor gatherings, there have been outbreaks in other states. We’re very keenly aware of that.”

Indeed, a recent Washington Post analysis of cellphone and coronavirus case data showed that the average number of cases doubled three weeks after states reopened bars, compared with rates during the week of the reopening.

Maine is one of eight states where bars with no substantial food menu remain closed. Seven states currently have no restrictions regarding bars. The other 35 states have varying degrees of restrictions.

Some local establishments converted their licenses from lounge to restaurant/lounge, which allows them to fall under restaurant guidelines provided they offer food more substantial than chips and nuts, and keep their kitchens open for as long as drinks are being served.

“What we recognize or know as a bar is really a lounge under Maine law,” said Brandon Mazer, a Portland attorney who specializes in bars and breweries. “To qualify as a restaurant, you need a kitchen and you need to serve full-course meals, things you need a fork and knife to eat, probably not just hot dogs or not just french fries.”

Portland currently has 59 such restaurant/lounge establishments, which can offer both indoor and outdoor seating. State mandates cap indoor gatherings at 50 and require social distancing of at least 6 feet between parties, which should include no more than eight people.

 

PORTLAND, ME – SEPTEMBER 16: Griffin Meara, left, and Erin Barnes work the bar at Ruski’s Tavern, which reopened recently with indoor and outdoor seating. (Staff photo by Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer) Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Ryan Deskins, who owns the Sagamore Hill Lounge on Park Street, changed his license back in April and began outdoor dining in June. He said business has been particularly dependent on the weather this year.

“Some days our sales are as strong as they were before COVID,” he said. “Other days are so bad that you question whether we should be open that day.”

Street closures, parklets and other temporary outdoor seating measures have allowed bars with limited indoor space more room to operate. Blyth & Burrows, for example, is rather narrow and can fit anywhere from 16 to 20 customers indoors while adhering to state guidelines. An additional area on Exchange Street can accommodate another dozen, according to owner Josh Miranda.

“What hurts is that bars make money on people sitting at the bar,” said Miranda, who said revenue from the bar is roughly 35 percent of what it was a year ago.

Miranda also owns a nearby restaurant, Via Vecchia, which opened in June and includes two outside platforms that can seat another 20 patrons. All that outdoor Old Port seating will go away after October, when streets need to be cleared for snow removal operations.

“It’s going to be tough,” Miranda said. “Generally, you make money in the summer to make it through the next winter, but a lot of places were just treading water this summer. Everybody who got (Paycheck Protection Program) money pretty much used it for what they were supposed to, and now that’s gone. I don’t know what’s going to happen this winter.”

Six weeks remain before the arrival of November, and optimism can still be found. Ruski’s, a neighborhood tavern in the West End, opened its doors last week after being closed since March.

Monica Haley, who owns Ruski’s along with her husband, Josh, said their tavern is too small to have been operating entirely inside, so they added two small picnic tables and another higher table outside and, after a construction crew finished re-bricking their sidewalk, reopened on Tuesday.

“We’ve had a lot of neighbors stopping in and saying it’s really nice to see us open,” Haley said. “We’re just going to have to see how it goes.”

She admitted to being nervous about when the cold weather hits and the outdoor seating is no longer an option.

“We actually do pretty well in the winter because we’re up in a neighborhood and get a ton of foot traffic,” she said. “But with the limited capacity, it’s going to be challenging.”

Bartender and server Chad LeBlanc, right, delivers a tray of drinks to a group of friends in the nautical-themed outdoor seating area at Blyth & Burrows. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Maine’s Department of Economic and Community Development, which has been working with public health experts to establish reopening timelines and guidance for businesses, is aware of the challenges facing bars and restaurants as colder weather moves in.

“We are looking at ways establishments may be able to safely move operations indoors to ensure some revenue can continue flowing,” DECD spokeswoman Kate Foye said. “The department is also looking at other models used by cold-weather areas like Quebec and Nordic countries (that) utilize outdoor service year-round.”

Foye noted that bars are of particular concern because “they are often small, enclosed spaces where people are close together and talking loudly, which is a hospitable environment for virus spread. We also know that bars in other states have been traced to sources of outbreaks, which informed the administration’s decision early in the reopening process to shift them to outside only.”

Steve Hewins, president and CEO of Hospitality Maine, said some bars and restaurants have opted to remain closed until the pandemic recedes. Once outdoor serving no longer becomes a viable option, he said there may be more closures.

“Whether they do it permanently, we don’t know,” he said.

Blythe & Burrows has installed a nautical-themed outdoor lounge on Exchange Street. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Portland’s oldest brewpub, Gritty McDuff’s, took advantage of the spring closure to install new ventilation and heating systems and replace old duct work. Seven outdoor picnic tables allow service to spill out onto Wharf Street.

Gritty’s also has brewpubs in Freeport and Auburn that allow for more extensive outdoor seating.

“We’ve been lucky,” said Gritty’s owner and founder Richard Pfeffer. “July was so hot that people didn’t want to be out there, but since then we’ve had such amazing weather. August and September have been so dry that it’s been great for outdoor seating.”

The lack of cruise ship passengers this summer and fall affected many Old Port businesses, and plenty of people remain uncomfortable going out to eat or drink until the pandemic is brought under control through a widely available vaccine.

“Everything is so unpredictable,” Pfeffer said of the upcoming months. “We may decide we need to do a shutdown and do some projects. I think we’re hoping we can maintain a steady business with our regular customers and hoping a vaccine will change the way we manage the whole thing.”

Shaun McCarthy, who owns Dock Fore on Fore Street in Portland, reopened in early August after converting his license to the restaurant/lounge classification. He added four picnic tables and two other cocktail/food tables for outside service.

McCarthy said the state has done well to control the spread of coronavirus, and if everyone follows safety protocols and wears a mask, life can go on.

“It’s basically a waiting game at this stage,” he said. “Everybody that I hear from is hoping they can have more capacity, but as long as the (COVID-19) numbers remain good and people keep following the rules, I think everybody will be fine.”


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