ELLSWORTH — Days ahead of its return to dine-in services, the inside of Sylvia’s Café looked a bit different.
Late Monday morning, owners Taylor and Codie Montigny were busy putting the finishing touches on their Mill Mall restaurant. Between tables carefully spaced at least 6 feet apart, a large curtain hung to separate employees from patrons and a host of other changes, the interior of Sylvia’s appeared vastly different than it did when it last allowed dine-in eating two months ago.
Now permitted to seat customers once again, Sylvia’s and other Hancock County restaurants are pulling out all the stops to ensure their establishments are safe and meeting state-set protocols. Social distancing might mean those dining out won’t be packing local eateries as they were before the novel coronavirus pandemic, but restaurant owners say they are eager to get a little closer to normal.
“It’s been a long two months,” Codie Montigny said. “Everyone is working really hard to make the proper changes and do what we need to do to get our doors open and make sure our customers feel safe.”
Originally, all Maine restaurants were ordered to remain closed through the end of May as part of Governor Janet Mills’ plan for state reopening unveiled April 28. That changed May 8 after the Governor announced the rollout of a rural reopening plan that allowed restaurants in Hancock County and 11 other counties without identified community transmission of the virus to open with restrictions as early as Monday.
Although many local restaurants have been offering takeout during the early days of spring, they have had their doors closed to sit-down service since March 18 following Governor Mills’ executive order closing “dine-in facilities” at restaurants and bars statewide.
To reopen, restaurants must meet a list of guidelines aimed at reducing the spread of COVID-19. Among the guidelines restaurants are expected to follow are limiting parties to eight members or fewer, maintaining proper spacing, adhering to heightened hygiene protocols and limiting the number of working employees to 10 people at a time.
The issue of spacing is going to be a particular challenge for restaurant owners, many of whom thrive on the social interactions and togetherness offered by restaurant dining. Businesses are looking to maintain the intimacy of their restaurants while adapting to a new normal.
“Spacing is a big one because one you want to be able to keep the social aspect from not dying,” said Tim McCarthy, general manager of Pat’s Pizza in Ellsworth. “That’s an important aspect for the restaurant business. If it becomes an Army DFAC where you can’t talk to the person beside you, then that takes away the pleasure of the restaurant.”
That’s one reason McCarthy is choosing not to open Pat’s Pizza for dining in until June 1. Taking the two additional weeks to take added measures will help him maintain the “Pat’s vibe” while also providing an opportunity to learn from other restaurants as they navigate the first two weeks with customers back in seats.
“Ellsworth is an interesting business community because we’re not competitors in the sense that we want to see each other fail; we want them to thrive,” McCarthy said. “We learn from each other, and if another restaurant is doing well in a tough situation, we’re compelled to say, ‘OK, what are they doing right, and what can we do to make ourselves better?’”
Restaurants that opened immediately included Helen’s Restaurant and Riverside Café in Ellsworth and Marlintini’s in Blue Hill. Sylvia’s, which has been closed Sundays and Mondays since mid-March, waited two additional days before welcoming back customers at 6 a.m. Wednesday.
Over the past two months, Sylvia’s, a breakfast-oriented restaurant, has been creating a series of new menu offerings Montigny felt would be better suited for curbside services. With some customers still hesitant to return to restaurant dining, her restaurant will continue to offer curbside service for the near future.
“We’re going to see what the next two weeks look like because I could open and have no one come in,” Montigny said. “We’re going to keep doing curbside because even though we’re back to doing dine-in, having that option makes some people feel safer.”
The pandemic has dealt a significant financial blow to local restaurants and other businesses ordered to close or significantly reduce service offerings over the past two months. Montigny said sales at Sylvia’s dropped 90 percent in the 24 hours after restaurants were ordered to close, and McCarthy said Pat’s has had to reduce staff by approximately 60 percent.
Larger chain restaurants have felt the effects, too; last week, a post on the Ellsworth Denny’s Facebook page notified customers that the restaurant would be closing its doors. For the weeks ending April 1, April 8, April 15, April 22, April 29 and May 6, Denny’s system-wide sales totals had dropped between 68-79 percent compared to its 2019 totals.
In regards to the Facebook post, which has since been deleted, spokeswoman Madelyn Rose Scarborough told The Ellsworth American that Denny’s Ellsworth and Biddeford restaurants “are currently closed.” She was unable to provide more information as to the length of the closures.
Downeast Maine restaurants also could suffer financial losses as a result of a summer season that won’t see droves of tourists descending on Acadia National Park and other vacation destinations. Between lodging restrictions, limited service options and a general unease of travel during a pandemic, a traditional Vacationland summer is looking extremely unlikely.
“We’re like a lot of other businesses around here in that we rely on summer tourists,” Montigny said. “You might have a year-round business, but that summer flow is what’s able to keep you going other times of the year.”
Unfortunately, the coronavirus has left few certainties in a time where restaurant owners need them the most. One thing they can be sure of, though, is that they have the support of their communities.
“When you look out and see all the people in our drive-through or in our takeout line, it’s just a really nice thing to see,” McCarthy said. “You have a lot of people taking turns going around to all the restaurants and spreading the love. I think it’s great for our town.”