All afternoon, I had been daydreaming about chicken panang curry. My cravings turned so acute that I began to smell coriander, galangal and makrut lime leaves everywhere I went, even while moving boxes in my basement. Fortunately, I’m familiar with “phantom food syndrome” and its cure. In this case, that meant dinner from Boda.

But when I visited the restaurant’s website, nothing worked. Strange for this to happen on a Tuesday, I thought to myself. Then I saw the succinct announcement on Boda’s Instagram announcing that they were closed until further notice.

I understood. By this point in the pandemic, we all understand that — whether accompanied by an invocation of “an abundance of caution” — an unexpected closure means a coronavirus scare.

Frequently, that’s all we know. But asking for more detail feels prying, impolite, like wondering aloud how often someone showers. Still, in such extreme circumstances, shouldn’t we know what’s going on behind the scenes when our favorite food business closes?

“I sort of wish people would ask us more questions,” Nick Charboneau, co-owner of Cook’s Lobster House on Bailey Island, said. “I mean, we are doing so much to make people more comfortable. Everything from contact tracing, to extra steps to make things cleaner, to 16 all-new, double-hung windows for natural air flow through the restaurant when the weather is nice, to an added air purification system to kill bacteria and viruses in the background. We want to be as transparent as possible.”

Restaurants like Boda in Portland are working hard to deal with coronavirus scares among staff. Many say they are not getting enough guidance. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Similarly, every one of the five food businesses I called to learn more about COVID-19 closures was eager to talk about their plans and procedures. “It’s an issue every restaurant has to think about,” Zak Taillon, general manager of Boda, said. “We did lots of pre-preparation and have always been a few steps ahead, all the way back to March of last year, when we closed for indoor dining way before we were even required to be. We’re doing our best and have successfully avoided spreading it in our tiny kitchen two times so far. We are really proud and don’t want to keep that hush-hush.”

These days, social media, especially Instagram and Facebook, are the channels of choice for nearly all businesses trying to communicate with customers about closing and re-opening.

And owners use the same technology to observe how colleagues and competitors tackle their own pandemic-related incidents. “When it happened to us, we started digging around online and immediately got in touch with Salvage (BBQ),” Charboneau said. “It looked like they were doing things right.”

As one of the first Maine restaurants to go public about a temporary coronavirus-related closure back in May of last year, Salvage BBQ unwittingly took on the role of vanguard. In the moment, though, co-owner Jay Villani didn’t feel certain that his was the correct response: “There was an initial panic that set in. But I couldn’t just look out and project what was going to happen; I’d just start freaking out. So I literally asked my GMs and the people running the kitchen, ‘What would make you feel comfortable?’ That was about the best we could do,” he said.

Salvage BBQ in Portland was among the first restaurants in Portland to deal with a coronavirus scare among staff. It closed the restaurant temporarily to address a positive COVID-19 staff test. John Patriquin/StaffPhotographer

One potential source of guidance to Villani and his team, the Maine Centers for Disease Control (CDC), appeared to offer little in the way of sound advice. “They just said just to isolate the person and have them check their symptoms. They actually told me not to shut down,” he said. “But we have to base it on staff. We don’t have as many people working now, and we can’t expect people to keep working shorthanded. Plus I’m not trying to kill myself or my staff with it. So it’s better just to take a knee and spend a few days to ratchet things down and clean everything.”

When Charboneau received a call from the CDC in October to alert him to a staffer’s positive test, he also expected more direction from the public-health organization. “But they were basically just calling to tell us what we already knew: You have a case,” he said. “Where was the email saying what to do? Where was the protocol? There was nothing we had to test employees, nothing even saying ‘Do this’ or anything that came close. We had to do that ourselves.”

“If they really wanted everybody to be safe, they’d help us out more,” Taillon agreed. “One size doesn’t fit all. Some of the recommendations for safety would put us under if we tried to follow them. Maintaining six feet distance in our kitchen is impossible. It’s like the CDC recommendations are best-case scenarios. If your restaurant has all the ingredients to be a safe spot, great. Otherwise, you just have to do your best.”

At Maple’s in Yarmouth, Robin Ray felt similarly unmoored when trying to interpret the Maine CDC’s recommendations. Her bakery experienced a COVID scare in late December. “I read everything the CDC put out, and I know all that they’re saying. I also watch other restaurants to see what they do. But it’s all still an up-in-the-air thing,” she said. “What I want is for someone to just tell me what to do, but it seems like the decision is with me, because the CDC information is as clear as mud.”

When I emailed to discuss frustrations around gaps in guidance from the Maine CDC, their Communications Director, Robert Long, sent back several resource links. He noted that the Department of Economic and Community Development “has hosted more than 30 webinars for business owners, including restaurateurs,” providing updates on COVID-19 protocols, guidance on financial assistance, and answering questions. Long wrote that Maine CDC  “works directly with employers to address circumstances specific to their workplaces.” Ideally, with staff available seven days a week, including holidays, the public-health experts can collaborate with affected business owners to “provide customized guidance based on circumstances unique to each establishment,” he said. As comforting as it might be, a step-by-step template to closing and re-opening just does not exist.

Ultimately, Maple’s made the painful choice to abandon her Christmas-Eve menu and Ray elected to refund all her holiday orders, including muffins, coffee and more than a thousand bagels. “There were tears, and not just my own. Scout (Ray, her daughter and Maple’s general manager) and I sat in the living room and emailed everybody about what happened, trying to be as professional and honest as we can, but you can’t say too much because of privacy issues,” she said.

Rather than waste 1,200 bagels that had never been in contact with the potentially positive staffer, she boiled and baked them, then offered half-dozen batches for free to the customers whose festive breakfast plans had been scuttled by the scare. “I couldn’t sell them obviously, but I could give them away to the people who had their morning ruined. It was comical and crazy, but it turned into a good thing from a really bad thing.”

This January saw an even pricier potential food wastage at the Portland Food Co-op, when a back-to-back COVID closures generated a loss of about $10,000, according to General Manager John Crane. “We sell a lot of very perishable products, so one of the biggest tasks for us was coordinating quick donations with local food banks. We had to give away a lot of food: our entire produce department, entire meat department and the entire bread bakery. You need to find someplace for it, so it’ll feed somebody,” he said. “When you have products that have a two- or three-day shelf life, they’re not going to last until you open up again … whenever that is.”

Indeed, the decision on when to re-open poses another tricky calculus problem. Thorough cleaning is part of the solution, although all the businesses I spoke with reinforced how much extra sanitation they are already doing.

The other crucial element is testing staff. But absent clear process directives from government organizations, businesses are left to navigate that territory on their own, which creates bottlenecks that further delay re-opening.

“You’re supposed to do your own internal contact tracing,” Crane said after reading the online guidelines. But from his understanding, “they (Maine CDC) don’t specify what type of test. Some of our staff went to the drug store and had the fast test, but you really want to have the lab test, which takes more time. So when we had that second positive, we asked everyone to wait for five days, then staggered staff in three groups over three days and waited for them to be cleared with a negative lab test. It takes a long time.”

To ensure efficiency and consistency, some owners play a part in overseeing testing. Villani sends staffers at all three of his restaurants (the others are Local 188 and Black Cow) to two specific Portland testing centers and reimburses them for the associated costs.

This October, Charboneau took things a step farther: “We actually brought all the employees to the same testing site, the one at Cook’s Corner,” he said. “We ended up with several employees filling up their parking lot, waiting to be tested for three hours. But if you don’t do that, it slows everything down. It also cost us $150 a head, but we need that peace of mind, so do they, and so do our clientele.”

As expensive, wasteful, confusing closures become part of the new normal for restaurants, many have reconsidered their decision to remain open during the pandemic. For some, there is no financially viable alternative. For others, the choice is more nuanced, more connected to the promise of life beyond the pandemic.

“Just on a weekly basis, I think how it would be so much easier to navigate this entire thing if we had never re-opened. But I know my staff need to be here, even with the scares we’ve had. They are happy to be working. They want to work. They say they’d go crazy if they didn’t have this, even if they were getting paid to stay home!” Ray said. “And for customers, they want a little break from making their own food, but it’s more than that. It’s this small sense of normalcy and community. I get it. I want that, too.”

Andrew Ross has written about food and dining in New York and the United Kingdom. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is the recipient of three recent Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association.
Contact him at: [email protected]
Twitter: @AndrewRossME

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