Wayside Food Programs managed to keep its warehouse open throughout the pandemic, delivering food to nearby food pantries and offering community meals and kids’ snack programs.

But the highly infectious coronavirus variant known as omicron changed everything. Wayside announced a weeklong closure on Monday because so many staff and volunteers were infected or exposed to coronavirus that it could not keep operating.

“Because we are so tight in terms of staffing, we couldn’t do it all,” Executive Director Mary Zwolinski said. “It was just a good time to take a step back and take time to reset.”

The omicron variant sweeping across Maine and the United States has forced employers to shut their doors temporarily, sent students back to remote education, and limited critical social and public safety services.

Jimmy Davis helps a customer while working the desk at Bayside Bowl in Portland on Monday. Most of the business’s roughly 32 workers are trained for multiple positions, so Bayside has been able to avoid closures for lack of staffing, owner Charlie Mitchell said.  Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

It’s reminiscent of state-mandated lockdowns in early 2020, but with a crucial difference: Closures back then were meant to slow viral spread. Today, the lightning pace of infections is hitting a strained workforce at all levels, in some cases forcing closures and cutbacks.

“I think most businesses are doing everything they possibly can, short of shutting their doors,” said Dana Connors, president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce. “There is no question, the impact of omicron in terms of the workforce is very apparent and very serious.”

HOSPITAL HARDSHIPS

Maine hospitals managed to stay staffed even as hospital beds and intensive care units filled with patients through the monthslong coronavirus surge driven by the delta variant this fall.

What’s happening now is completely new, said Steven Michaud, president of the Maine Hospital Association. Even with the foreknowledge of what happened in South Africa, where omicron originated, as well as other countries where the latest variant spread rapidly, no one was truly ready for the volume of cases recorded in the last 10 days, he said.

Maine’s major hospital operators have record numbers of staff out sick and are cutting back services such as elective surgeries even further, he said.

“We know this is omicron – we don’t need the data,” Michaud said. “This is so different than before. We never had staff going down like this.”

To counter staffing shortages, hospitals in some states are even allowing infected staff to keep working if they have mild symptoms or are asymptomatic.

MaineHealth is experiencing the highest number of employee absences since COVID-19 vaccines were introduced, spokesperson John Porter said.

Porter was unable to provide exact numbers on Monday, but said the staffing challenges have required the health care system to rely on more expensive contract or “travel” nurses and doctors.

Treating COVID-19 patients requires more resources than other illnesses, including space, staff and equipment. Meanwhile, the surge has forced hospital officials to put nonemergency procedures on hold.

A lot of hospital revenue is tied to those procedures, Porter said, so not only is the hospital not getting that revenue, it’s being replaced with a form of care that’s very expensive to deliver.

“It’s going to have severe financial impacts, and we’re assessing that now,” he said.

PUBLIC SECTOR HIT HARD

Public agencies face serious staffing issues as workers step away because of COVID-19 infections or exposures. In Portland, 77 city workers were out Monday because of COVID-19, about 6 percent of the city’s workforce.

The number of city workers out sick is more than three times higher than at any point since the pandemic started, said Portland Communications Director Jessica Grondin.

“And while it does present a staffing challenge, we haven’t had any major impacts to services,” Grondin said.

In other cases, staffing shortages have strained public workforces to the limit. The Portland Public Library on Monday went back to curbside-only service for a week at the main library in Monument Square “due to low staffing related to COVID.”

Regular mail delivery in some southern Maine communities has been disrupted for weeks because the U.S. Postal Service’s thinning workforce has been stretched to the breaking point by coronavirus cases.

Schools are being forced to go back to remote learning or close as the highly contagious omicron sidelines more staff. Brunswick High School closed on Monday and made classes remote for the rest of the week. York schools made the same decision.

The Yarmouth school district asked community members to volunteer as substitutes to help out at recess and lunch. On Monday, Cape Elizabeth schools also put out an “urgent” request for immediate help in the kitchen and said they soon also may need help monitoring students in the cafeterias and on the playgrounds. Bonny Eagle, in Buxton, went remote and altered its schedule last week because so many bus drivers were sick.

Coronavirus has spread among state government offices, but officials say it has yet to disrupt services.

“We have prioritized the continued delivery of state services throughout the pandemic while keeping state employees healthy and safe and, even despite this sustained surge, we have been able to continue providing services,” said Kelsey Goldsmith, communications director for the state Department of Administrative and Financial Services.

At the Maine Department of Transportation, plow drivers still will keep winter roads safe and clear, even during the current surge, Public Information Officer Paul Merrill said.

“We have contingencies in place that we can employ to help maintain acceptable levels of service during storms and other emergency events,” Merrill said.

Dean Staffieri, president of labor organization MSEA-SEIU Local 1989, said at least 70 workers in the state’s executive branch alone are out sick this week. That likely scratches the surface of omicron’s reach, Staffieri said. MSEA-SEIU represents about 13,000 public-sector workers in Maine.

“I have no doubt it is moving through corrections, it is moving through judiciary, it is moving really everywhere,” Staffieri said.

Despite their best efforts, some services are running into problems – such as thinly staffed emergency coverage at the Maine Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Child and Family Services, he said.

“Not a whole lot of people are on (nights) and weekends – it doesn’t take very much for people to get ill and for that system to get really stretched,” Staffieri said.

The labor union has asked Gov. Janet Mills’ administration to consider distributing medical-grade KN95 masks to state workers in public-facing jobs for better protection through the omicron wave.

BUSINESSES ADJUST … AGAIN

Small businesses are standing on the precipice, too. Over the past two weeks, at least a dozen small Portland restaurants have temporarily shut down after COVID-19 infections and exposures.

Portland’s Print: A Bookstore closed to walk-in traffic shortly after the New Year and switched to an appointment-only model.

“While we are all fully vaccinated and have received our booster shots, this new variant appears to be more transmissible than earlier strains,” the bookstore’s owners wrote on its website. Switching to appointment-only gives their staff the flexibility to work in even smaller groups, they said, with the hope that an infection won’t expose the entire staff.

“This model, ideally, will both protect customers and prevent any extended closures,” the owners wrote.

Barista Josh Powers is double masked while working at Elements in Biddeford on Monday. Co-owner Katie Pinard said she knew she had to do something to protect her staff when watching them serve maskless customers began to give her panic attacks. Elements now requires vaccines and boosters for the staff and masks for staff and customers. “Everyone has a different health assessment algorithm they’re using,” she said, “so I constantly feel like I’m either overreacting or underreacting. It’s just exhausting.” Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Every time her phone rings, Katie Pinard expects it’s going to be an employee telling her they have COVID-19.

So far, she’s been lucky, and no one at Elements: Books Coffee Beer in Biddeford has tested positive.

It’s no accident. From the start, Pinard, co-owner of the downtown combination bookshop, bar and coffee spot, has been very careful about coronavirus.

She was starting to have panic attacks, she said, serving maskless customers coming in from all over. If she felt that way as an owner, Pinard said, she knew she needed to do something to help her staff feel safe.

The shop requires vaccines and boosters for employees, and masks for customers and staff. Pinard purchased KN95 masks for her 14 employees and tries to keep rapid tests on hand. Recently, faced with this most recent surge, Elements eliminated indoor seating and transitioned to a grab-and-go model.

This allows them to operate with fewer staff members at a time, which also creates more flexibility for scheduling if someone ends up being a close contact and needs to call out.

“Is it affecting financials? A little bit. Is it worth it? Absolutely,” she said.

Pinard said that as a business owner, she doesn’t feel equipped to be making public health decisions.

“Everyone has a different health assessment algorithm they’re using,” she said, “so I constantly feel like I’m either overreacting or underreacting. It’s just exhausting.”

Like any other business owner, Bayside Bowl owner Charlie Mitchell has been working to find the right balance to keep his Portland business open and his staff and customers safe.

The bowling alley lost a lot of its winter business, especially that which normally would come from corporate parties, Mitchell said.

Events and concerts that usually would fill some of the quieter months have been postponed until the spring, he said, when the bowling alley’s popular rooftop bar will reopen.

Bowling leagues, though, make up the majority of Bayside’s business, and those have remained strong. The leagues are like their own little communities and are focused on keeping each other safe, Mitchell said.

Most of the business’s roughly 32 staff members have been there for years and are trained for multiple positions, so Bayside has been able to avoid any closures for lack of staffing when people have needed to take time off, he said.

Mitchell hopes that the spring and summer, which already are booking up fast for weddings and parties, will be strong.

“That rooftop is the light at the end of the tunnel,” he said.

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