Tables are set at the empty Solo Italiano on Commercial Street in Portland on March 30. Restaurant Workers of Maine wants the state to let the industry reopen in mid-May rather than June 1, the date set in Gov. Janet Mills’ plan to restart the economy. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

A group representing restaurant owners and workers across Maine has asked Gov. Janet Mills to reconsider restrictions on when restaurants can reopen during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a letter mailed to Mills on Thursday, the Restaurant Workers of Maine warns that the industry could collapse if restaurants are not allowed to operate at full capacity by July 1.

The group, which says it has 5,000 members since forming in 2017, wants the state to allow the industry to reopen in mid-May rather than having to go an entire month with curbside pickup only and entering June not knowing what levels of customer capacity will be allowed inside eating establishments. The letter asks the governor to evaluate COVID-19 activity levels every two weeks and to make adjustments accordingly, rather than her phased reopening that goes month by month.

Though restaurants will be allowed to open June 1, bars would have to wait until July 1 before they could reopen, under the executive order Mills issued Wednesday. The Restaurant Workers of Maine points out that further clarification is needed because many Maine restaurants also feature bars.

“The restaurant industry is at the brink. We don’t know what to do,” said Wendyll Caisse, the owner of Buck’s Naked Barbecue in Windham. “We are going to kill the industry if this drags on into summer.”

During a telephone interview Thursday evening, Caisse said she sent an electronic copy of the group’s request to Mills’ office on Thursday.

“The administration looks forward to reviewing their letter and welcomes their input,” Mills press secretary Lindsay Crete said in an email Thursday night. “It is our goal to work collaboratively with different sectors of the economy to open in a manner that protects the well being of Maine people and the economy.”

The letter warns that capacity limitations on in-house dining that continue into the summer months will destroy Maine’s restaurant and lodging industry, thousands of small business, as well as the families that own them and work for them. The group said that their busy season, from May through September, accounts for about 46 percent of a year-round restaurant’s sales and close to 90 percent of sales for a seasonal operation.

“After reviewing your ‘Plan to Restart Maine’s Economy’ we are gravely concerned that the still unknown capacity limitation, timeline and the confusing lack of definition – bar to restaurant for example – will render most restaurants insolvent,” the group’s letter states.

“It would be helpful to know your capacity limitations now so we can start the process of filing for bankruptcy if the limitation does land on 50 percent,” the group says. “That is a death march for restaurants.”

Caisse reiterated that restaurant owners need to be able to operate at full customer capacity by July 1 or face financial ruin.

“If we don’t have a summer season, nothing, nothing is going to survive,” she said. “We rely on the volume the seasonality of our season produces.”

Caisse said the restaurant industry and its workers already practice good sanitation and have been taking extra precautions as they strive to protect their employees and customers.

“Everyone has to make sacrifices and we get it, but many of the protective measures the governor is asking for were already in place,” Caisse said.

In the letter, the Restaurant Workers of Maine has offered a number of protective measures suggestions that, if not already in place, will become part of a restaurant’s daily routine. They include: limiting the number of diners to those that can be adequately distanced 6 feet apart, using disposable menus or cleaning laminated menus after each use, lifting zoning rules to open up outside seating, sanitizing tables and seats after each guest party has been served, and posting signs on doors that prohibit anyone with a fever or symptoms of COVID-19 from entering.

The group also asks the governor to consider loosening mandates in less densely populated areas that are experiencing minimal virus activity.

Caisse said most of the group’s members are comfortable with operating a curbside only pickup system through May 19 with an evaluation by the state to determine if it would be safe to reopen restaurants and bars for the rest of the month.

“We understand these are extraordinarily difficult times and we certainly think that the restaurant industry is well-positioned to operate in safe, healthy and reassuring ways based on our requirement to take sanitation and health precautions seriously during regular times,” their letter says. “We are a business of extremely tight margins and we will be the number one hardest hit state in the country by this virus economically, sadly with some of the lowest virus benchmark numbers.”

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