Will Lavey, chef and owner of the Blue Spoon restaurant in Portland, says that restaurants in Portland will likely have to make adjustments to their business models to survive the winter season. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Restaurants around the country are beginning to push back at the idea that they are major spreaders of COVID-19. Now an industry group that represents Maine restaurants is joining in, arguing that the label is unfair because the restaurants with problems are the ones that don’t follow safety protocols.

“Nobody wants to be unsafe because it will be catastrophic not only to the public but the restaurant itself,” said Steve Hewins, president of HospitalityMaine. “So most restaurants – the vast majority – are trying to do the right thing, and I think that often doesn’t get reported.”

Hewins said that with COVID cases rising, Maine restaurateurs are worried there will be another sweeping restaurant shutdown because they are “easy targets.” But this time, he said, such a move could close many of them for good. Hewins plans to ask the state to allocate up to $5 million in funds from the federal CARES Act for grants to help smaller restaurants install equipment, systems and software that would both keep the public safe “and allow restaurants to continue to operate and employ people and survive until the point that the pandemic is no longer controlling their lives.”

More analysis is needed to determine the exact amount that would be required, Hewins said, but he envisions the funds going toward things like new air filters, gas and electric outdoor heaters, tents and other temporary structures, plexiglass, and new software for handling takeout. “We’re in the ninth inning now because that money has to be spent by Dec. 31 or it’s (taken) back by the federal government,” Hewins said.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report in September that said adults with COVID-19 were twice as likely as the general population to have eaten at a restaurant two weeks before. But the National Restaurant Association responded that a correlation is not the same thing as cause and effect, and that risks can be lowered by focusing on safety measures such as mask wearing and social distancing.

On Tuesday, the association sent a letter to the National Governors Association urging that decisions about regulating restaurants be based on “facts and contact-tracing data, not hypothetical simulations of transmission.”

“There is an unfounded impression that restaurants are part of the problem, and we are suffering as a result of inconsistent, restrictive mandates,” Tom Bené, president and CEO of the National Restaurant Association, wrote in the letter. “Data tying systemic community outbreaks of COVID-19 to restaurants has yet to emerge, but we are too commonly labelled as ‘super-spreaders,’ and have become a convenient scapegoat for reflexive shutdowns.”

Hewins noted that more than 4,500 frontline restaurant workers in Maine have completed a course covering health and safety protocols geared specifically toward controlling the spread of the novel coronavirus. Many of the restaurants that have had cases appear in this state were not following the appropriate guidelines, he said.

There are currently seven open outbreak investigations associated with restaurants and social clubs in Maine, according to Robert Long, spokesman for the Maine CDC.

The Blue Spoon restaurant in Portland is serving both indoors and outdoors, even as the weather cools, and offering takeout and delivery. The restaurant normally seats about 34 people, but now it can seat no more than 14. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Liz Koenigsberg, who owns the Blue Spoon Cafe in Portland with her husband, Will Lavey, said she supports the idea of a little pushback because the idea of another shutdown is “scary.”

“We are very concerned about there being another shutdown with no financial systems in place for support for us at this point,” she said. “This summer was a little bit better than everybody had anticipated, but certainly didn’t make up for all all of that time we had to be closed prior. So to go back to that is scary, especially in the winter in Maine because it’s a slower time anyway.”

Koenigsberg said they’ve already seen a slowdown in business as the weather has gotten colder. The restaurant is serving people both indoors and outdoors, and offering both takeout and delivery. The Blue Spoon normally seats about 34, including at the bar, she said, but right now it can seat only 14 people maximum – and usually it’s more like eight or 10.

Koenigsberg said Hewins’ idea of targeted grants for restaurants is “amazing” and “incredibly helpful for us.” She said the heated outdoor dining pods some restaurants are using this winter are too expensive for their little cafe, so Lavey – who has also worked in construction – is considering building them himself. Koenigsberg estimates the project may cost a couple of thousand dollars, as much as the outdoor deck seating they constructed themselves so they could have just three extra tables.

“If we knew this were a forever situation, then maybe it would be worth the investment,” she said, “but for us to invest in something for one season, we have to decide if it’s going to be worth the money we make off of it. We also don’t want to do this and then have (the governor) tell us that she’s shutting us down.”

Lee Farrington, co-owner of LB Kitchen in Portland, which is doing takeout and delivery only, also likes the idea of helping out smaller independent restaurants financially. Her restaurant recently received a $5,000 grant through Coastal Enterprises Inc. – part of a program created by the Federal Home Loan Bank of Boston to provide COVID-related support to small businesses – that she plans to use on an outdoor alcove “so people aren’t freezing when they come to pick up their food.”

But Farrington, who has an underlying health condition and whose 82-year-old mother lives with her, said she understands why indoor dining may have to be restricted once again.

“This is a serious situation,” she said. “It’s definitely out there killing people, and why would you put yourself out there at risk?”


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