Starting Wednesday, people in southern Maine were finally able to sit indoors at restaurants again, but among restaurant owners and customers in Portland, opinions on indoor dining are mixed.
Andrew Garry, a co-owner of Highroller Lobster Company on Exchange Street, said he and his partners were waiting to open up the restaurant’s interior, instead planning to maximize a patio and new on-street seating.
“We’re going to launch indoor dining eventually, just not right now,” said Garry, explaining that he wanted to keep his staff as safe and healthy as possible while best practices for eating indoors are finalized.
“We’re going to wait, feel it out -- let some other places be the test subjects, per se,” he said, adding that the loss of 80 indoor tables is significant but not worth the risk of someone getting sick.
“I feel like everyone’s in the dark and we’re just kind of making decisions you think are right,” he said.
Next door, at Timber Steakhouse, owner Noah Talmatch said he was ready to open his dining room after losing what he says was well over $200,000 in revenue after being closed for months.
“It didn’t make sense to us, it just caused us more economic harm,” said Talmatch, of the state order that kept him shuttered while dining rooms in rural Maine were open weeks earlier.
Gov. Janet Mills announced Monday that she was allowing dining rooms to reopen in the three remaining counties where they had remained closed since March.
As he prepared to set up indoor and outdoor spaces for Wednesday evening service, Talmatch said the ability to have people inside is not only business-saving but something customers want too.
“People want to come out, they like to be served,” he said.
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On Exchange Street Wednesday, potential diners' opinions were as split about eating in dining rooms as restaurant owners were about opening them.
“I would probably not go inside a building. I would eat outside if I could survey it and feel they were taking the necessary precautions,” said Dan Warthman, a Portland man out for a walk to a toy store with his grandson.
Warthman explained he loves to patronize places like Solo Italiano, Scales and Luke’s Lobster, but has been cautious about going back again, to avoid getting COVID-19.
“I’m a little wary still because I don’t think the final vote is in on what’s going to happen,” he explained.
Conversely, a mother and father from South Carolina who were visiting Maine on an RV trip and stopped at Highroller for lunch said they would eat inside if a restaurant observed social distancing.
“We would as long as the table spacing’s proper, just to help local businesses,” the man said.
One viewpoint was unanimous, despite the disparate opinions on indoor dining. Roads closed to allow more outdoor dining and retail space were getting high marks from all customers and business owners.
“It’s bringing a little bit of life back into the Old Port. I feel it’s been eerily quiet for a long time,” said Garry, adding, “I think this Exchange Street closure should happen every year.”