When Gov. Janet Mills announced on Friday that she was rolling back state restrictions on travel and increasing indoor capacity limits, Tina Hewett-Gordon felt like she had been given a Christmas gift in March. 

General manager of Kennebunkport’s Nonantum Resort for 29 years, Hewett-Gordon said the announcement was a thrilling sign that the state is moving in the right direction. 

“2020 was such a challenge for the entire hospitality industry,” she said. “This news just really gives us hope that this season is going to shape up in the way we hoped. … We are elated, excited, nervous, scared – all of the above.” 

Her optimism – and simultaneous trepidation – was echoed across Maine’s business community Friday as managers and owners took stock of what a new set of rules will mean for a second summer with COVID-19. 

In a news conference, Mills said she is easing capacity restrictions on businesses as well as indoor and outdoor gatherings later this month, and then expanding them further in May, just before the Memorial Day weekend. Bars and tasting rooms will be allowed to resume indoor service on March 26. 

Steven DiMillo, manager of Portland’s DiMillo’s on the Water restaurant and chairman of the board for HospitalityMaine, the trade group that represents the hotel and restaurant industry in the state, said he was “almost giddy” following the announcement. 

Portland’s famous floating restaurant can hold more than 530 people, but has been restricted to 100 – 50 in the lounge and 50 in the dining room – for months. 

“We couldn’t use any of the second-deck function space,” he said, and even with keeping 6 feet of separation between tables, the change will allow them to welcome more people. 

It’s also a positive sign for the number of weddings the restaurant is slated to host this summer. 

“We have a big operation. This (news) benefits a big operation more than it does a small space … but it’s a step in the right direction” for everyone, DiMillo said. 

Despite his store’s more modest square footage, Khaled Habash is looking forward to allowing more customers inside the Blue Lobster, which sells apparel and souvenirs on Commercial Street in Portland. 

Last summer, Habash said he was only able to welcome five or six people at a time, making it hard to have any real sales volume. 

For indoor gatherings, the capacity limit in Maine will increase to 50 percent on March 26 and to 75 percent on May 24.

The first increase may only mean an increase to about 15 or 16 simultaneous customers for Habash, but “it’s certainly better than five,” he said. 

“This news is a really big deal for the state,” he added. “Everyone’s ready for summer. … Lots of people will be coming to Maine, escaping wherever they’re coming from because of what we’re doing here.” 

Still, it’s not all great news. As the owner of three seasonal businesses, it’s been somewhat of an emotional roller coaster for Habash. 

He also runs The Scenic Route Maine Tours and is part owner of Maine Duck Boat Tours, neither of which operated last season. It’s not looking good for those two businesses this year either, despite Friday’s rollback announcement. 

“That company specifically is set up for excursions for cruise ship passengers,” Habash said of The Scenic Route Maine Tours. Habash was referencing the uncertainty over when cruise ships will be returning to Maine’s waters.

The duck boat tours rely heavily on tourism, which will likely increase, but as an open-air vehicle, it’s still unclear how they will be allowed to operate, said Kris McClure, president and operations manager. If they still have to maintain 6-foot distancing, it might not make sense to resume. 

“We’re still feeling like it’s still too early to say 100 percent in either direction,” McClure said, “but we’re optimistic. It’s encouraging news.”

At the Maine State Music Theatre in Brunswick, artistic director Curt Dale Clark said the announcements “throw whole new possibilities into the air.” 

The company still has not made any decisions on the 2021 season, slated to open June 3, but “it seems like progress is being made,” he said. 

“Hopefully this will be snowballing toward the ability for us to operate at 100 percent capacity,” he said. “It’s a very positive step, very encouraging.” 

However, people still need to take the pandemic seriously and continue with safety precautions so the measures aren’t rolled back, Clark added. 

“It’s very good news for the economy, for the state of Maine, and if it’s done well, it can remain good news for the health,” he said.

Julia May, director of operations for Thompson’s Point, which includes two indoor performing arts venues and one outdoor venue, said the company has been preparing to move to a percentage-capacity model for some time and “will be quickly looking at how it will impact programming coming online for the spring and summer.”

“This is a huge step in getting art, in all forms, back into the public forum,” May said. “I think it was the right move to keep the mask mandate and distance requirements while lifting the hard capacity limits. We are fortunate that our venues, primarily Halo at the Point, Brick South and The Depot Pavilion, offer more than enough room to accommodate sizable groups, even with social distance requirements in place. But certainly having all three of those at over 50 percent capacity will help us immensely.”

Lauren Wayne, general manager of State Theatre in Portland, which hosts concerts and promotes outdoor shows at Thompson’s Point, said the news is positive but won’t mean immediate changes for her business.

“Speaking for only my business, we’re not made whole until we can operate at full capacity,” she said. “Many people don’t realize that opening at 100 percent is great, but if you still have to maintain 6-foot distance, that doesn’t really work.”

Still, Wayne expects the theater to consider hosting some smaller acts.

“Our business model is based on the national touring industry, and those acts aren’t going to book dates unless they can travel to enough states,” she said. “So it’s really kind of wait-and-see for us, but things are certainly moving in the right direction.”

Despite the lingering uncertainty, Hewett-Gordon, the Kennebunk innkeeper, said she and fellow industry professionals are still “doing the happy dance.”

“We still have a zillion details to work out, but we’re moving in the right direction, which is all we can hope for,” she said. 

The hotel will be able to open all 109 guest rooms, compared with last season’s 70, and the upcoming wedding season is looking more promising, too. 

Plus, with more people working from home and itching for a vacation, Hewett-Gordon is expecting the season will kick off shortly after Memorial Day this year instead of the traditional third week of June. 

“By loosening the protocols, it gives us the opportunity to do what we do and do it well, and recover from some of the losses from last year,” she said. “This will save jobs, bring jobs back in and help the economy recover. We are thrilled.”

Staff Writer Eric Russell contributed to this story.

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