Downtown Brunswick restaurants can reopen for outdoor dining on Monday and will use the town’s wide sidewalks to do so after several businesses disagreed with a plan to block parking spaces. Hannah LaClaire / The Times Record

BRUNSWICK — Brunswick residents may have more options, but fewer seats, for al fresco dining this summer as more businesses embrace outdoor dining but slash the number of tables to keep customers distant.

The Brunswick Downtown Association surveyed businesses last week to gauge feedback on a proposal that would block a handful of parking spaces along Maine Street to allow restaurants and retailers to set up outdoor dining or shopping options on the sidewalk, effectively turning the parking spaces into a makeshift pedestrian walkway. 

According to Debora King, executive director, it was “loud and clear” from business owners that while they were interested in using the extra sidewalk space, they were not interested in blocking parking spaces to do so, as they feel there is already limited parking downtown. 

“We can work with that,” King said, noting that Brunswick’s sidewalks are wide and more than a dozen restaurants have successfully offered the outdoor dining for years. 

Restaurants and shops have been closed to customers, operating in a take-out or curbside only capacity, since mid-March in an effort to stem the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus.

Gov. Janet Mills initially released a four-phase reopening plan that would allow restaurants in all 16 counties to reopen to diners June 1, provided employees and customers follow proper social distancing requirements and wear masks. Some more rural counties, such as Sagadahoc, were allowed to reopen sooner.

However, after a rise in new cases and hospitalizations, Mills announced on Wednesday that she was postponing plans to allow dine-in service in Cumberland, York and Androscoggin counties, according to the Portland Press Herald. All counties are still allowed to reopen retail stores for indoor shopping June 1 as scheduled. 

Restaurants are still permitted to open for outdoor dining and Mills said the state will be updating guidelines. She urged towns in the three counties to consider closing streets to vehicular traffic so restaurants can establish outdoor seating areas. 

In Portland, city officials voted to block off portions of Dana, Exchange, Milk and Wharf streets to allow shops and restaurants to reopen under social distancing guidelines, the Portland Press Herald reported. The street closures will take effect June 1. 

Rockland has made similar changes, restricting vehicles from a portion of its downtown and creating a pedestrian way. 

Blocking off a portion of the road or any of the side streets in Brunswick was not an option, partly because Maine Street funnels traffic to other, busier roadways. 

According to Town Manager John Eldridge, initial suggestions included blocking the outside lanes on either side of Maine Street, but officials quickly realized it “wasn’t going to work from a public safety standpoint.” 

Existing outdoor seating will likely have to be reduced in order to institute the recommended six-feet of separation between customers and staff when in-person dining can resume, though King said she is not anticipating there will be a “mad rush” from customers or businesses. 

“People are going to ease into this,” she said, adding that people can dine in Bath and Topsham, but that so far, it’s been a relatively slow process.

“People aren’t ready to go out to eat just yet and take out (services) are going really well,” she said. Some will not reopen right away and will continue to offer just takeout. 

King said she has heard already that some restaurants, like Richard’s, Maine Street Steak and Oyster and Union Street Bakery are considering adding outdoor dining. Others, like a cafe and a bar, which generally have opposite hours, may band together to use the same space during their respective operating times, King said, but nothing has been confirmed yet.

The Brunswick Downtown Association will assist anyone who needs help navigating the town permit process. 

The decision to stick to the sidewalks is also favorable for town officials. 

In order to effectively block traffic from the makeshift pedestrian way, the town would need to purchase heavy barricades, the cost of which would “not be insignificant,” Eldridge said earlier. 

King said she hopes more eateries will take advantage of outdoor dining opportunities, especially as businesses gear up for a summer season that will likely be slower than anticipated.

Under the state’s restrictions, tourists must quarantine for 14 days and there can be no gatherings of more than 50 people through August. 

Because of this, many of the events that usually draw crowds to Brunswick, like Maine State Music Theatre’s summer season, the Great State of Maine Air Show and the Bowdoin International Music Festival, have been canceled. 

The focus will mainly be on attracting locals and those from surrounding communities, she said.

“We’re working as hard as we can. … Everyone is in this together.” 

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