Warm weather and eased restrictions on restaurant service mean a step toward “normal” for Scott Folsom, owner of Schooner Landing Restaurant and Marina in Damariscotta. Folsom and his staff opened the restaurant’s outdoor seating area on Thursday, May 21 after struggling with curbside service since mid-March.
“For us, it’s about sitting on the dock here,” Folsom said. “A large part of our menu is fried food, traditional Maine seafood. I mean, if you’ve ever ordered fried clams and eaten them half an hour later – it’s not so good.”
Loosened restrictions on indoor and outdoor table service for Maine restaurants went into effect May 18, prompting restaurateurs like Folsom to experiment with creative ways to reopen while protecting their staff and customers against the spread of the coronavirus.
Folsom hopes to open his interior dining room in the coming month, but for the time being, is sticking with Schooner Landing’s harbor-side picnic tables. His staff sanitizes everything as frequently as possible and wear masks. Plexiglas at strategic points provides additional protection.
“Another thing we’re doing is using all disposable plates and cups, so nothing dirty goes back into the kitchen,” Folsom said. “I’ve got to protect my cooks.”
The Bradley Inn, on Pemaquid Point, took full advantage of the relaxed rules and opened its doors for indoor dinner service Friday. Co-owners David and Laura Moskwa have taken the requisite precautions – moving tables at least 6 feet apart from each other, replacing salt and pepper shakers with disposable paper packets, and even swapping upholstered benches for wooden chairs to eliminate surfaces that can’t be easily sanitized.
The restaurant’s reopening has given the Moskwas hope in the face of a summer season otherwise decimated by travel restrictions and Maine’s 14-day quarantine order for out-of-state visitors.
“We’ve had more cancellations than anything,” said Laura Moskwa. “We’re at 3% as to where we were last year.”
Only a handful of diners made reservations for opening weekend, but Laura and David Moskwa hope recent changes to their menu will pull in a stable crowd of locals and visitors from within the state.
“People always think coming here is an expensive ordeal, but it’s really not,” she said. “You can have dinner under $20, and there’s something here for everybody.”
Thanks to a loan from the federal Paycheck Protection Program, the Moskwas have been able to retain their full staff – including servers, a bartender, a hostess, and even three students who still plan to travel to the state from eastern Europe on J-1 cultural exchange visas.
“Well, they haven’t said they’re not coming,” said Laura Moskwa. “We just really don’t know what this season is going to look like.”
Folsom, on the other hand, is operating with a limited staff. With the summer season – Schooner Landing’s busiest – just getting started, he can’t pay employees more than they would make collecting “supercharged” unemployment, a provision of the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act that adds $600 to weekly unemployment checks.
“I’m having a really hard time getting people because everyone is collecting $1,000 a week and they don’t really want to come to work here at this time of year,” Folsom said.
Sharlene Feltis, who owns Reunion Station on Route 1 with her husband, is also struggling to staff her restaurant.
“Right now, we have to protect our staff,” Feltis said. “They are getting unemployment, but if they come back to work right now, they’re not going to make enough to make ends meet.”
This means that Feltis, with only her husband and son, is cooking, taking orders, cleaning tables, and even remodeling the restaurant’s dining room.
Reunion Station is open for outdoor seating and has been offering a takeout menu since mid-March. A steady cohort of regulars is keeping the business afloat. Nevertheless, Feltis is eager to reopen indoor seating as soon as the remodel is done, even if she isn’t precisely sure what indoor service will look like this summer.
“I really need to go out to dinner to another restaurant that has opened and say, ‘OK, how are you doing this?’” she said. “Because I’ve got 10 pamphlets of how to do it and they all contradict each other.”
Folsom echoed Feltis’ uncertainty. For him, flexibility is key.
“We’re kind of just trying this,” Folsom said. “We’ll see what happens, and will adjust as we go.”
For their part, diners have an appetite for more. Diana and David Sherman ate lunch at Schooner Landing on Thursday. Diana Sherman said she felt “absolutely” safe dining outside and looks forward to eating out more in the coming months.
“We’re outside, people are far apart, and everyone is very respectful,” she said.
“And as long as everybody uses common sense, we can get through this,” David Sherman chimed in.