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Reopening of bars in rural Maine brings both optimism and frustration

Thirteen counties in Maine have allowed bars to reopen amid the coronavirus pandemic.

AUGUSTA, Maine — As tasting rooms and bars reopen in parts of rural Maine, there is both frustration and optimism in Maine's dining and hospitality communities.

The Raging Bull Saloon in downtown Augusta is in one of the 13 counties allowing bars to bring people back customers. The owners and staff were excited Friday their source of income was returning after the business went through its federal Paycheck Protection Program money. 

"Two-thirds of the business is the bar," said saloon co-owner Brad Wallace. "The food supplements our payroll and overall weekly costs but the bar is our main income source."

Wallace added that the business will be allowed to open past 9 p.m. and have its barstools back out but there will be noticeable social distancing requirements.

Indoor seating will be limited to 50 people, pens and credit cards used by staff and customers will be sanitized and plastic silverware will be used as well.

"It's a little nerve-wracking just because it's been so different," said Wallace.

He said, however, any angst is offset by his excitement of seeing regular customers again and the fact he's able to open for indoor dining and bar service at all since establishments is southern Maine cannot do that yet by state order.

"I feel terrible for them," he said.

At about the same time as Wallace was beginning to open up, a group of business owners and representatives of Maine's hospitality industry held a press conference asking for more help for struggling businesses.

The event, organized by the Maine Hospitality and Tourism Alliance, asked the Maine Gov. Janet Mills to allocate $800 million in federal funds given to the state in the form of grants to businesses that have suffered losses.

"We have a big problem that requires a big solution," said Steve Hewins, the President and CEO of HospitalityMaine, one of the industry groups in the alliance.

Responding to the push for a grant plan, Mills released a statement saying she is ready to "welcome proposals from all sectors of our economy regarding business losses and will be asking [her] Economic Recovery Committee to take them into consideration."

Mills also said the alliance's plan "underscores the need for Congress and the President to provide greater aid to the states."

At Raging Bull, there is still uncertainty too, though Wallace says he's seen people and businesses come together in new ways during the pandemic that gives him hope.

"Tight community… is going to be one of the most important things," he said.

Bars in southern Maine are currently scheduled to reopen on July 1.