Portland’s city manager announced an emergency curfew Monday, saying establishments where groups gather for entertainment or to socialize must close all day Tuesday and between 8 p.m. and 2 a.m. the rest of the week in an attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

The mandatory shutdown from 6 a.m. Tuesday until 2 a.m. Wednesday is aimed at heading off the traditional celebratory events of St. Patrick’s Day, when thousands of revelers pack city bars and restaurants from morning until late at night, often standing shoulder-to-shoulder. The 8 p.m. curfew Wednesday through Saturday will effectively shutter night life in the city’s popular Old Port.

The impact on businesses was made clear later Monday when one of the Old Port’s popular Irish pubs, Bull Feeney’s, decided to shut down until further notice and laid off its 30 employees. Another restaurant owner, whose business opened last week, has circulated a petition that garnered the support of dozens of other Portland bars, restaurants and service industry groups, calling on Gov. Janet Mills to immediately close all restaurants throughout Maine to suppress the spread of the virus – a step she has not yet taken.

The emergency declaration by City Manager Jon Jennings singles out “restaurants, bars, movie theaters, museums, dance clubs, music venues and any other establishment where individuals gather in groups or are in close contact with one another.”

Businesses that do not host gatherings, including grocery stores and department stores, are permitted stay open. There are no current plans to limit the physical movement of people or vehicles within the city.

“This is a time of shared sacrifice for all of us, and we must be willing to alter our daily lives for now,” Jennings said in a statement. “I understand the very difficult situation this puts our business owners in, but in a global pandemic it cannot be business as usual. We simply cannot have large gatherings, such as in the Old Port. We need your help in confronting the coronavirus.”

Individuals who violate the prohibition, including the owner of a bar or establishment, could face a fine of $500 for not complying with the order.

“The city is also strongly recommending all restaurants close to dine-in customers, or dramatically limit the number of customers, and provide takeout or delivery options only for the foreseeable future,” the city’s announcement says. “While this is the preferable option, the city understands that some restaurants may not be set up to do so. Additionally, the city recommends that all gyms and fitness studios close.”

The curfew is supported by the city charter, which grants Jennings the power to declare an emergency in all or parts of the city “whenever a disaster or civil emergency exists or appears imminent.”

The emergency declaration expires in five days, but the city council can vote to extend it, according to the charter.

Under the charter, Jennings has broad power to implement regulations prohibiting or restricting the movement of vehicles and people in all or parts of the city and to call on state government or other municipalities for assistance and to access supplies or other vital materials to protect the health, life and property of residents.

Bangor also declared a civil state of emergency Monday night that required all bars, restaurants, and gathering places to close between 8 p.m. and 2 a.m. for five days beginning Tuesday.

The measures are designed to curb transmission of COVID-19, which is moving through communities in Cumberland County. So far, the state has 17 confirmed or likely cases, and the number of presumptive positive tests is expected to grow as capacity for more testing at the state and federal level expands.

The decision did not come lightly, Jennings said, and he recognized the financial hardship that closures will impose.

Jake Stevens, who last week opened Leeward, a restaurant on Free Street, has decided to close indefinitely, after only three days in business. The decision means 16 people will lose their jobs.

Although the decision to close means short-term financial losses, Stevens said remaining open would be a mistake. With limits on gathering sizes, serving customers on a limited basis would bleed the business dry. More importantly, he said, it also would convey the wrong public policy message, that bars and restaurants are safe places during a global pandemic.

Now, he is calling on state officials to make the closures statewide.

Stevens started a petition Sunday that quickly drew the support of dozens of Portland’s culinary institutions, including DiMillo’s floating restaurant, Bissell Brothers Brewing, and the proprietors of Piccolo and Chavel, in addition more than a dozen non-food-related business. The language of the petition was borrowed from a group in Portland, Oregon, Stevens’ hometown, that called for statewide closures paired with a menu of financial relief measures for employees and business owners.

The suggested policies range from a moratorium on residential and commercial evictions statewide, to extending deadlines for filing state payroll taxes. It also calls for the creation of a grant program for small businesses that lose more than 25 percent of sales; deferring state and local license fees and taxes; and calling for a broader program to assist small- and medium-sized employers who bear a large portion of their employees’ healthcare costs.

The Trump administration’s current plan of offering loans through the Small Business Administration “simply will not suffice,” the petition states.

“We need creative, immediate action to infuse financial resources into our community,” it says.

The decision to force the closure of Portland’s bars and restaurants on St. Patrick’s day is a good start, but does not go nearly far enough, Stevens said.

So far, Stevens said, many restaurateurs have been forced to make hard decisions about closing without the benefit of state or federal government intervention, and the political and financial cover that often accompanies it.

In Italy, where the virus has killed hundreds and forced a national lockdown, politicians defied public health officials’ calls during the early stage of the virus’s spread and helped promote events calling for people to support local businesses by dining out. The close contact that occurs in restaurants and bars provides prime conditions for the spread of the virus.

Now, those same towns and regions of Italy are some of the hardest hit by deaths and serious illnesses – a situation Stevens wants to avoid. But without government action mandating business closures, it’s hard to convey to the public the seriousness of this public health emergency, and in turn, spur political leaders to take steps to relieve the financial stress, Stevens said.

“I feel a lot of the things that are happening right now from the local and state government are half-measures, and we need decisive action,” Stevens said. “I think we are very much ignoring the warning signs that are coming out of places such as northern Italy. I believe if we don’t take these measures now, we will regret it. I feel like taking stricter measures now at an early stage will hopefully allow us to not have these measures for as long.”

One of the petitions’ signatories is Doug Fuss, owner of Bull Feeney’s, an Old Port staple since 2002. Since the bar opened, the bar has not missed a single St. Patrick’s day, Fuss said in an interview. It is the biggest day of the year by a factor of three, he said.

But that streak ends Tuesday, and Fuss, out of concern for his employees, made the decision to remain closed until further notice. The risk to patrons and staff of spreading the virus is now too serious to ignore, Fuss said.

He told staff Monday afternoon about the closure, and the bar’s doors were locked shortly after, he said. About 30 people, including, kitchen staff, servers, managers and others, will lose their jobs for an unknown period. Fuss said he expects to offer everyone back their positions when it’s safe to open again – but Fuss has no idea when that will be.

“I think St. Patrick’s day itself motivated the move by governments across the country, because we’re seeing what’s happened in Italy, especially,” Fuss said. “I think people who are out on that day are thinking they are healthy, and that the virus isn’t spreading among them to cause a real problems.”

Fuss, speaking by phone from the restaurant, said some of his staff were enjoying one last pint after the doors were locked.

“Many of them are down at the bar right now,” he said. “I bought them all a drink.”

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CORRECTION: This story was updated at 6 p.m. on March 18, 2020, to correct the location of Leeward, a restaurant on Free Street. 

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