It wasn’t hard to find a parking spot Monday in the Old Port, at the Maine Mall or in Freeport. Nor was it difficult to maintain physical distancing.

Shoppers returned to retail stores in a trickle rather than a flood Monday, the first day of Phase 2 of a multistage plan by Gov. Janet Mills to ease back into economic activity for Maine businesses selling goods other than food and other items deemed essential during the COVID-19 pandemic. Nonessential stores had been closed to walk-in customers at least since Mills issued an executive order March 24 in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

Shelley Williams, 55, of West Falmouth bought two spatulas and a box of potpourri from the Williams Sonoma store in The Maine Mall, which opened at 11 a.m. Monday.

“I did it basically to get out of the house,” Williams said.

Williams and her boyfriend each wore a mask, as did most other shoppers strolling through the sparsely populated wings of a mall with roughly a dozen stores and half a dozen kiosks open to customers.

People walking through the Old Port’s streets Monday afternoon in Portland were less apt to be wearing facial coverings, although roughly three out of four seemed to be complying with the measure meant to curtail the spread of respiratory droplets that can carry the virus.

“We really only had one person show up without having it on, and she had one,” said Shauna Watt, manager of LeRoux Kitchen on Commercial Street. “We just had to remind her to put it on. Everyone seems to be happy that we’re open and willing to cooperate with the new routine.”

The new routine at the mall means no tables in the food court, black drapes over coin-operated kiddie rides, reduced operating hours and employees limiting the number of customers in each store. Macy’s, the only department store in the mall to open Monday, is spacious enough under state guidelines to allow up to 100 customers at a time.

Customers leave the L.L. Bean flagship store in Freeport on Monday, the first day non-essential retail businesses could open in southern Maine. The stickers on the ground at right were placed to help customers stay separated while waiting to go into the store, which has a capacity of 75 customers under the state’s guidelines. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

That limit was reached within 15 minutes Monday, and a line formed of seven people monitored by an employee holding a clipboard and a walkie-talkie.

Of the roughly 100 stores in the mall, the majority remained closed. Those open on Monday besides Macy’s included 18 stores, 12 kiosks and two food court operations: Panda Express and Red Mango.

One of the kiosks is new. Luis Lema of South Portland added a third Runa Couture kiosk to one that sells stuffed animals and another that offers hats and scarves. His new venture? Cloth face masks in a variety of colorful fabrics.

Lema said he’s been at the mall for eight years and usually sells at fairs and festivals in the summer. With many being closed, he decided to stay at the mall.

Evion Harris, 16, of Auburn, was among a number of early arrivals hoping to purchase a newly released pair of retro Air Jordan 13 “flint gray” basketball sneakers officially released by Nike on Saturday, but available to Maine customers for the first time on Monday.

“I’m not a basketball player; I just like how they look,” said Harris, who arrived an hour before the Finish Line store opened and succeeded in her quest. “There’s a lot less people here than I thought.”

Visitors walk toward an entrance at the newly reopened Maine Mall on Monday. Most of the mall’s stores remained closed. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

With a children’s play area shut down, things were certainly quiet outside of the Hand Made In store, which sells wares from New England craftspeople and artisans. Co-owner Mindy Dean said shoppers tend to walk the length of the mall’s corridors, so eventually her store will be seen.

“And if we’re open and nobody else is, we get the sales,” she said.

Tourist-related sales in the Old Port were sparse on Monday, at least at Shipwreck & Cargo on Commercial Street.

“Just fumes,” said Ryan Harding, one of the owners. “We’ve had a couple sales, but it doesn’t even touch operating expenses.”

Harding said he’s hoping for a decent rebound in July and August, Maine’s traditional months for tourism. Concrete barriers closing down streets to pedestrian-only traffic outnumbered Old Port shoppers Monday afternoon.

One of the few, Catherine Richards, 59, of Freeport, stopped in at Jill McGowan on Exchange Street to purchase a few shirts before an appointment later in the afternoon.

A woman walks past barriers across Exchange Street in Portland on Monday. The city placed the barriers to close off Exchange Street and a few other Old Port streets to help facilitate outdoor dining and shopping. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

“I had a little extra time and thought I would stop in a favorite spot,” Richards said. “I guess the only question I had was how many people would feel comfortable being out and about.”

There was hardly any foot traffic throughout Freeport’s downtown shopping district around noon on Monday. More than half the stores lining Main Street and its adjacent side streets remained closed.

L.L. Bean reopened its flagship store Monday but had not received many visitors as of noon. A long stretch of sidewalk leading up to the front entrance had been roped off to serve as a queue, but there were no customers standing in it.

Inside the store, customer volume was nowhere near the 75-person occupancy limit established by the state for stores of its size. There were fewer than 20 shoppers inside, and it appeared there were more staff members than customers on the floor. Signs throughout the store reminded the scattering of shoppers to maintain physical distancing.

Across the street at the Freeport Village Station outlet mall, only a handful of stores decided to reopen Monday, including the L.L. Bean outlet store, Famous Footwear and Old Navy.

Famous Footwear had indicated with a sign on its door that occupancy was limited to five customers at a time, compared with its normal occupancy limit of 150 customers. But as of noon Monday, it had not even reached the five-person limit, and there was no line to enter the store.

A block away on Depot Street, Rhoda and Doug Dillman, owners of Casco Bay Cutlery & Kitchenware, opened their doors for the first time since mid-March and wondered aloud what the week would bring in terms of sales.

The couple said they weren’t expecting much.

“People aren’t going to be rushing out,” Doug Dillman said. “They’re going to be very slow to begin with.”

The store, which is celebrating its 29th year in business this month, has reduced its operating hours to 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, which could change depending on how many customers show up.

“We’re just going to wing it,” Doug Dillman said. “Everything is an unknown.”

Rhoda Dillman said the coming weeks will be all about regaining consumers’ confidence that they can return to shopping at their favorite local stores and do it safely. But in the meantime, she said, independently owned stores are facing a cash flow crunch and uncertainty about how much inventory they should stock.

“Everything is unprecedented,” Doug Dillman said. “We’ve never had anything like this in our lifetimes.”

Related Headlines


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.