Left to right, James Sanborn, Lisa Graham, Shaun Graham, Ellen Sanborn and Cote Warner clink glasses as they have beers Friday at the new Belleflower Brewing in Portland. Belleflower Brewing was open for the first time Friday, the first day that bars were allowed to reopen. The group at the table came from Fluvial Brewery in Harrison to support Belleflower Brewing. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Maine bars and tasting rooms were allowed to reopen for indoor service Friday for the first time in over a year, but many proprietors are taking a wait-and-see approach while COVID-19 remains a concern for some of their workers and customers.

“It’s a reflection of all of us – some are very comfortable (reopening) and some not so comfortable,” said Sean Sullivan, executive director of the Maine Brewer’s Guild.

Gov. Janet Mills ordered all indoor drinking and eating establishments to close on March 18, 2020, as part of the many restrictions designed to limit the spread of the coronavirus. The governor began lifting those restrictions gradually in May, but bars and tasting rooms were never on the reopening list until Friday.

They could only serve patrons outdoors, a rule designed to limit the spread of the virus. But with use of the vaccines growing and Maine looking to recapture tourism business this summer, the state announced this month that it would ease those rules to allow bars and tasting rooms to bring patrons indoors. Still, most will have strict occupancy limits to avoid crowding.

Jill Perry, the head of retail operations and merchandising for Portland-based Allagash Brewing Co., said the brewery will reopen for tastings on May 1 but will still operate only outdoors.

“We just want to make sure we’re doing things correctly, and we have a lot to prepare for after being closed for a year,” she said.

By limiting patrons to outdoor service only, Perry said, Allagash will be protecting its production operations and the employees inside.

“We’re really looking forward to welcoming people back,” she said, but allowing customers inside will have to wait until more customers and workers have been vaccinated.

Opinions about reopening varied among bar and tasting room owners.

Gabriel Clark pours beers at Belleflower Brewing in Portland on Friday, the tasting room’s opening day. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Friday was selected as the opening date weeks ago for the new Belleflower Brewery, before the state made its decision.

Co-owner Nick Bonadies said he and his partners had been working on opening the new East Bayside brewery since last November, so they knew there was a chance the lid on operating an indoor tasting rooms would still be in effect. It was a nice happenstance that opening day coincided with the state’s lifting of the order barring indoor tasting rooms, he said.

Belleflower opened on the site of another brewery that also had operated a tasting room, so Bonadies and his partners didn’t have to do a lot of work to adapt it to their beer-making – and serving – operation, and a tasting room was always in the plans. Even though the Mills administration’s date to allow reopening wasn’t set until a few weeks ago, Bonadies said he and his colleagues had a hunch that restrictions would start to ease.

“We had a good opportunity in the spot that we opened, and we were kind of betting on the vaccine coming out and people getting vaccinated to open up new opportunities,” he said.

Capacity restrictions mean that the tasting room will be limited to about 20 people at a time, but Bonadies hopes the brewery’s opening weekend will attract a steady flow of visitors.

Sullivan said there’s a “real mix of opinions” among Maine brewers about reopening tasting rooms.

Belleflower Brewing co-owner Nick Bonadies, in blue at the door, talks with patrons waiting to get tables Friday, the first day the tasting room was open. Seating was limited because of COVID-19. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

“It reflects their level of comfort and the physical space they occupy,” he said. “We’re all agreed that we’re happy to have the opportunity,” especially with fickle Maine springtime weather that could make drinks outdoors an attractive option one day, and a situation to be avoided the next.

For bar owners, reopening is a complex decision. Many opted to amp up their food operations and get reclassified as restaurants to allow them to reopen much sooner following the initial lockdown.

But some who avoided that option said they, too, aren’t going to make a hasty re-entry to business. The owners of the Snug Pub and Cocktail Mary’s, two popular Munjoy Hill bars, said they will wait to reopen to make sure their workers are safe, either by being fully vaccinated themselves, or by being surrounded by a community that is largely vaccinated.

The Portland Hunt + Alpine Club on Market Street won’t reopen until next week, and the owner said she plans to keep it an outdoor service operation for the time being to protect her workers.

Sweetgrass Farm Winery and Distillery, based in Union, will stick to its May 1 seasonal opening and opt not to rush for an earlier reopening, owner Constance Bodine said. The winery and distillery operated tasting rooms in Union, Portland and Kennebunk, but the Kennebunk site won’t be reopening, she said.

Bodine says she’s most concerned about the health of her employees and worries that opening now will lead to greater exposure to the virus for them.

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