At right, Angela and Kevin DePaola eat lunch at the Portland Lobster Company in Portland on Monday, the first day restaurants in Portland could open for outdoor dining. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

For the first time since they were closed by the governor’s executive order some 2 1/2 months ago, restaurants in Portland were permitted to open Monday – for outdoor dining only. Only a handful did, and the lunchtime crowds – maybe that’s not the word for it – were sparse.

A walk through the Old Port between 12:30 and 2 p.m. revealed plenty of available tables at Gilbert’s Chowder House, Portland Lobster Company and Boone’s Fish House, all on Commercial Street; the last seemed to be the liveliest. Each has a view of the waterfront, and while breezy and on the chilly side, it was still an enticing early June day for al fresco dining.

“We’re not getting a crazy big crowd,” Portland Lobster Company manager Ashley Lafreniere said at about 12:30 p.m.; the restaurant opened for outdoor dining at 11 a.m. She estimated they’d served 20 to 30 customers, “much, much less” than on a June day in an ordinary year.

“We’re excited to have any customers,” Lafreniere said. “It feels great to have some semblance of normal.”

At the nearby Boone’s Fish House, proprietor Darcy Smith-O’Neil – outfitted in a mask as was the staff elsewhere – greeted a reporter warmly. She said she was “cautiously optimistic” about the number of diners thus far. Two men were enjoying a lunch of clam chowder and burgers, the only occupants of the downstairs deck at about 1:30 p.m.; 14 were seated on the upstairs deck where there is now room for 50.

“We’re excited to be here,” Smith-O’Neil said, “and at the same time we’re nervous.”

People eat lunch on the top deck of Boone’s Fish House on the Portland waterfront on Monday. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

In the last two days, she said she’d received more than 100 phone calls asking if the restaurant was open, and she expected the weekend to be busy.

Steve Smith, one of the two men dining downstairs, said they’d come in order to support local business. The men, both residents of Portland, said they had “no anxieties whatsoever” about returning to restaurant dining, making it clear they believed restaurants could have opened as much as a month ago, and for indoor dining as well.

Indoor dining in Cumberland, York and Androscoggin counties had been scheduled to open Monday, as well, but last week, as the number of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations started to climb, Gov. Janet Mills delayed it indefinitely.

Just two tables at the opposite sides of the patio were occupied outside Elevation Burger, also on Commercial Street; the restaurant does not have table service. Portland residents Aaron Philbrick and Georgia Harlow were enjoying fries, burgers and root beer at one of them with his young son, celebrating the fact they’d moved in together that very day. “It’s a little more nerve-wracking than I expected,” Philbrick confessed. “We’ve been looking over our shoulder, making sure we are keeping socially distant.”

At Gilbert’s Chowder House, two patio tables were likewise occupied, and another celebration was in progress. Florida resident Robyn Surdel, who owns a house in Old Orchard Beach, sat at one with her son and his girlfriend, who are residents of Connecticut. They were celebrating his birthday over fish and chips and haddock sandwiches. Surdel said she came prepared with rubbing alcohol disinfectant, N95 masks and gloves, and added that they’re all extremely careful and had even taken COVID-19 tests before coming to Maine last week. They didn’t seem aware that Mills had issued an executive order requiring anyone coming from out of state to quarantine for two weeks.

But after three months quarantining with her elderly father in Florida, Surdel said it felt great to be eating out, and she was grateful that the restaurant was open. A masked waiter came over to check on the table.

“Thank you for dining with us,” she told the threesome. “It’s a team effort right now.”

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