Restaurateur Geoff Houghton on Jan. 5, 2018, in his first brew pub, The Liberal Cup in Hallowell. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal file

HALLOWELL — A popular brewpub has announced it’s closing for seven days, following positive tests for COVID-19 among staff and customers.

On Thursday, the Liberal Cup posted this notice on its Facebook page:

“It is with the communal heavy heart that we must announce we will close for the next week. We have always believed in following the science. However, sometimes science and protocol is not enough. Given that we have had positive COVID cases among customers and staff, as well as how many are in our greater community, our Public House will close the doors today, January 7. We have required our full staff to get tested. We expect to reopen on Thursday January 14th. Until then, please take good care of each other, wash your hands, and stay safe.”

Liberal Cup owner Geoff Houghton said Thursday the report of a customer who had contracted COVID-19 prompted a call to the Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention.

“We followed their protocols,”  he said. “They were happy we went on to do some contact tracing. I suggested we have the whole staff tested. It wasn’t a requirement, but they thought it was a great idea.”

When some tests among staff came back positive, he said, that led to the decision to close the brewpub at 115 Water St. for a week, even though the state CDC was not requiring that.

A sign at the the Liberal Cup Public House and Brewery on Thursday in Hallowell. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

“We’re a small business and we pretty much work with each other in a smaller area,” Houghton said. “I don’t think there’s anyone who was definitely not exposed. It put us in a strange bind, because even though everyone else had a negative test, the CDC said that they shouldn’t come into work.”

The decision to close was hard, he said, both for employees, who would lose a week’s pay, and for the business, which would lose a week’s revenue.

While the restaurant is closed, Houghton said, he and his employees will apply for unemployment benefits as they did last year when bars and restaurants were closed under public health directives and while the Liberal Cup was open only for takeout.

While some of his staff have said they’ve received the most recent relief check from the federal government, they are struggling, he said.

In Hallowell, the health officer is City Manager Nate Rudy.

“In my assessment, the Liberal Cup has complied with guidance given by the state,” he said Thursday.

As the city’s health officer, Rudy said he receives notification of anonymous complaints submitted to state agencies against businesses in Hallowell, and the Liberal Cup has been one of them.

“They have made significant changes to the dining area to meet the best practices,” he said. “They’ve been responsive and asked a lot of thoughtful questions.”

Rudy said his most recent visit was Tuesday and in his assessment, the Liberal Cup was complying with guidance issued by state agencies.

When he gets complaints, Rudy said he reviews it with business owners and gives guidance on how to better comply with state public health directives.

“I hope others will look at (the closure decision) as a good example,” he said, citing the transparency behind the decision making.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic was declared in March 2020, Houghton said his restaurant has followed the guidelines and rules, cutting down the capacity inside, adding outdoor seating, installing Plexiglas dividers and requiring employees to wear masks. The restaurant already had a fresh air ventilation system.

At the same time, his staff has been responsible for enforcing the state’s public safety mandates, which sometimes put them in conflict with their work in the hospitality sector.

“People have gotten a lot better with masking,” Houghton said. “Everyone enters with a mask these days, and that wasn’t always the case, and they leave with a mask.”

While customers don’t wear masks while they are eating and drinking, he said, they do when they leave their tables to use the bathrooms.

The Maine CDC reports that through Jan. 3, the cumulative number of probable and confirmed cases has been 31 in Hallowell. While the city itself does not have a large population, its bars and restaurants regularly draw people from surrounding communities and farther away.

While the state has acted on complaints and violations reported at other eating establishments in and around Kennebec County — including Huiskamer Coffee House, Hott Dogg House and Raging Bull Saloon in Augusta, the Pond Town Pub in Winthrop and the Dunkin’ in Manchester, and Aunt Gin’s in Whitefield in neighboring Lincoln County — the Liberal Cup was not one of them.

Houghton said any changes to the open date will be posted on restaurant’s webpage or on its Facebook page, but he plans to reopen Jan. 14.

“I guess it’s our turn,” he said. “I hope it’s the only time this happens, but at least we know what to do.”

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