The Portland City Council voted Monday to close several streets to help shops and restaurants reopen and still observe social distancing guidelines.

The city will also loosen restrictions and reduce fees to help businesses expand into nearby public and private spaces, like sidewalks or plazas.

“This is an experiment, and it’s one that we hope will be successful,” said Councilor Justin Costa, who chairs the Economic Development Committee. “It’s one that we hope gives an option to retail and dining establishments to be able to operate as safely as they possibly can, but the truth is that none of us know if it’s going to be successful in helping businesses survive.”

“The only thing that we know is that it’s better than not trying at all,” he added.

Sections of four streets downtown will be closed to traffic June 1 to Nov. 1 to allow businesses to extend onto sidewalks and roads so they can serve customers in a way that maintains social distancing. Portland Press Herald Staff Graphic

The street closures will take effect June 1, when the state allows restaurants to reopen for the first time in more than two months. The current list calls for parts of Dana, Exchange, Milk and Wharf streets to be closed to traffic, and the vote allows that list to change or grow in coming weeks.

City Manager Jon Jennings said the staff is open to other ideas for street closures, and he is working with businesses and neighborhood groups in other parts of the city.

“This is not a program that is only focused on the downtown,” Jennings said. “This is a program that is focused citywide.”

Portland officials announced the plan last week, and the Economic Development Committee unanimously endorsed it Thursday. The full council unanimously voted in favor of the street closures Monday night. The program will run through Nov. 1.

The changes also include temporary permits for restaurants and retailers that want to expand their businesses onto sidewalks, private parking lots and similar spaces. The city is also expanding its “parklet” program, which allows restaurants to move tables into parking spaces. The fees for those permits will be reduced or waived.

Gov. Janet Mills has announced a phased reopening plan that will allow restaurants in all 16 counties to reopen June 1. But gatherings of more than 50 people will still be prohibited, and people must wear face coverings or masks in public settings.

Restaurants and businesses that expand their operations outside will still be required to follow the guidelines from the governor’s office, including social distancing.

On-street restaurant seating areas will have to close by 10 p.m. daily, but the streets will be closed 24 hours a day, except to delivery vehicles and residents in the morning.

The city of Rockland recently adopted a similar program on its Main Street.

Public comment on the proposal has been generally positive. Industry leaders, like the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce and Portland Downtown, reacted favorably last week. The nine people, including a landlord and multiple business owners, who spoke at the public hearing encouraged the council to vote in support.

“I’ve been in touch with other local business organizations around the country who are looking to us as an example,” said Mary Alice Scott, executive director of Portland Buy Local.

But people raised concerns in emails to public officials, some of which were included in the agenda for Monday’s meeting.

Some worried that the changes would make downtown parking more limited than it already is, and one business owner suggested the city wait another month. A few retailers said they would need to bring on more employees to monitor their inventory outside, which would make it difficult for them to maintain social distancing. And others raised questions about trash, music, street access for nearby residential tenants and lines of waiting customers.

“I do just want to say that we hear you,” Costa said about those concerns. “We understand the frustrations, and we don’t ignore them or take them lightly. But these are really dire times for some of our businesses, and what we do see is that we have an opportunity to provide a little bit more flexibility that will hopefully be beneficial.”

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