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Restaurant leader criticizes Mills for closing the door to Southern Maine reopening amid coronavirus, COVID-19 pandemic

Steve Hewins, CEO of Hospitality Maine, speaks on Gov. Mills' plans to delay full restaurant reopening in York, Cumberland, and Androscoggin Counties.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Most southern Maine restaurant owners were eager, even desperate, to reopen June 1, in line with Gov. Janet Mills’ Phase 2 scheduled for the economic recovery. 

Then the Governor changed the plan.

On Wednesday, Gov. Mills announced that restaurants in York, Cumberland, and Androscoggin Counties will only be allowed to open for outdoor dining—no inside customers will be allowed yet because of continued concern over the spread of COVID-19 in those three counties. They have roughly 90 percent of all of Maine’s 703 active cases of coronavirus. 

Restaurants in York, Cumberland, Androscoggin, and Penobscot Counties have been closed since March, as part of the Governor’s emergency orders. Those are also the four counties listed by the Maine CDC as having community transmission of the virus. Restaurants in the other 12, more rural counties were allowed to reopen May 18, as part of the so-called Rural Reopening plan. The remaining four counties were set to reopen restaurants and hotels June 1, until the Governor’s unexpected change.

“Lots of angst, lot of anger, a lot of disappointment,” says Steve Hewins, CEO of Hospitality Maine, a trade group representing Maine’s restaurants and hotel industry.

He says the announcement caught his own organization off guard because Hospitality Maine had been closely involved in writing the state’s June 1 reopening plan.

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“We are doing all the things, the industry taking it seriously and it concerns me the administration does not seem to recognize that. I won’t call it a lack of respect but we thought we had a more important seat at the table. And while the science is important, and don’t get me wrong, we feel the intersection of health cost and economic cost have come together now three months into the crisis.”

Hewins says his organization was notified of the change of plan an hour before the Governor’s announcement. A leader of the Maine Tourism Association said they got no advance warning.

Hewins says restaurant owners in those counties have already spent significant money to restock food and supplies and make required changes inside their businesses to follow the new state social distance and other guidelines. With the restriction on indoor dining, he says some of that money will simply be lost, just as businesses struggle to survive. Restaurants in Penobscot County, which have far fewer active cases of the virus, will be allowed to fully open June 1, but for the other three counties it will be outside service, take out or nothing.

“There’s a wide group of restaurants can't afford to wait, their business survival is a stake and they need to get started again or won’t have a business,” said Hewins.

The Mills administration has not yet set a new date for reopening inside dining.

At NEWS CENTER Maine, we're focusing our news coverage on the facts and not the fear around the illness. To see our full coverage, visit our coronavirus section, here: /coronavirus

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