Complaints about Maine businesses flouting pandemic rules set to increase during tourist season

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Complaints to authorities about businesses flouting Maine’s coronavirus rules have been low statewide since February, but it could be the calm before the storm of tourist season.

Officials said it would be easier to see people not wearing masks or clustering too tightly when they are outside, and more summer visitors means more crowded areas. On May 24, Governor Janet Mills will increase indoor and outdoor occupancy limits for restaurants and other businesses. Maine maintains social distancing and mask mandates as neighboring New Hampshire relaxes them, starting with the state’s mask mandate being lifted on April 16.

Complaints and violations increased during the tourist season last year after the governor eased quarantine restrictions on visitors last July. After increasing until the end of last year, they fell in February to less than 12 a day, said Lisa Silva, head of the state’s health inspection program. This has also been the case in large cities like Portland which enforce state rules, but complaints have been raised recently and more are likely due to the influx of visitors, compliance officials said.

“It’s more visual to see 20 people sitting in an outdoor dining room than it is to walk into a restaurant or store to see if there are any violations,” said Jessica Hanscombe, head of licensing and licensing. housing security in Portland. “As the weather warms up and occupancy rates increase, even with social distancing, I think we’ll see more complaints.”

In March, the governor announced that visitors from New England could come to Maine immediately without quarantine or testing, as would those from other states that had recently had COVID-19 or were fully vaccinated, a decision that immediately led to an increase in accommodation bookings.

The expected rise in complaints this summer could surpass those of last year’s tourist season, restricted to a pandemic. In Portland, there have been between 10 and 15 complaints a day during the pandemic. Bangor code enforcement director Jeff Wallace said he was getting seven or eight complaints every week until February, and now it’s down to one or two a week, but he’s also expected to an increase as it warms up.

David Hediger, director of Lewiston’s office of planning and code enforcement, said his office has gone from no complaints a few months ago to about three a week over the past two weeks. He said more people complied with the situation as the pandemic continued.

“Wearing masks has become the new norm,” he said.

Complaints typically relate to restaurants and are forwarded to Hediger’s office from the state guidance website. Tips are usually anonymous and include the name, location and incident of the business, for example “Saturday at 11 am the cashier was observed not wearing a mask,” he said. Lewiston’s approach is to educate those accused of violations rather than punish them. No company has seen its license suspended.

Cities and towns in Maine apply the state’s coronavirus prevention checklists differently. Complaints can be made through the Tips for Restaurants and Accommodation Business website and through the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry for Farmers Markets and Businesses. They can also go directly to the local police or to the law enforcement agencies. Portland also has a counseling line.

Once a complaint is received, local authorities usually visit the business. If an official finds a violation, the complaint is directed to a state inspector and can be elevated to an “imminent health hazard” notification, meaning the company poses a threat to spread COVID-19 and must act immediately to correct the violation.

If a business continues to evade mandates, the appropriate state agency may temporarily suspend its license. State inspectors visit non-compliant businesses statewide except Portland, South Portland, Lewiston, and Auburn, whose inspectors act on behalf of the state.

From April 1, 2020 to March 9 of this year, the Maine Health Inspection Program, part of the Department of Economic and Community Development, received 4,100 complaints, 93 of which were observed by inspectors who issued notifications of imminent danger. for health. Of these, 23 companies have had their licenses temporarily suspended. Almost all have been reinstated. The inspection program oversees restaurants and accommodations.

The Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, which oversees the markets, has issued 1,785 advisories alerting business owners to the reported non-compliance, 13 formal warning letters and a temporary suspension of commercial license. Most companies have made measurable changes, said department spokesman Jim Britt.

Some restaurants had more than one violation. Sunday River Brewing Co. in Bethel, whose owner Rick Savage flouted state rules by opening up to customers when indoor dining was banned, had the most with four notifications of imminent danger for health and five temporary suspensions of the health inspection program.

Rick Savage, owner of Sunday River Brewing Co., speaks to reporters outside his restaurant on May 1, 2020. Dozens of people lined up outside after appearing on Fox News the day before to say that he would open his doors to restaurant customers. violation of a state order. Credit: Charles Eichacker / BDN

This year, the state issued 15 notifications of imminent health danger and four license suspensions, including Pat’s’ Pizza in the Old Port of Portland and Cancun Mexican Restaurant in Waterville. Hanscombe said it was the only license suspended in Portland during the pandemic, as the city tried to work with companies. Companies have generally complied well, she said.

Cancun owner Hector Guentes declined to comment on the situation, but said his restaurant would reopen this week. The temporary suspension notice, which ends at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, has repeatedly stated that Waterville police observed staff, customers and security guards not wearing face coverings, removing bar stools and dining tables in violation of state mandates and as patrons walked around and danced.

Waterville Police Chief Joseph Massey said that while there have been repeated complaints and violations observed by police in Cancun, officers are generally attempting to seek voluntary compliance. The department receives three or four complaints per month and it can be difficult to determine their validity.

“Sometimes it’s someone who complains about the same company more than once because they’re angry,” he says.

Some companies initially felt isolated. Richard Clark, co-owner of Benjamin’s Pub in Bangor, reopened his restaurant in downtown Bangor in March after closing it last November due to the increase in coronavirus cases. He complained in November that he had received visits from Wallace and a call from a state inspector. Although no violations were found, he said the inspectors were “attacking us pretty hard”.

Things have changed since it reopened, with customers who like to wear masks. It also maintains the capacity at around 50 percent by choice.

“It feels like things are calming down after being tense last fall, that people are cautious and submissive,” Clark said.

Hanscombe in Portland said gray areas in warrants can be frustrating and one inspector may see things differently from another. The orientations of the State have constantly evolved. Restaurant owners were initially confused about what it meant to have tables 6 feet apart. It’s the back of an occupied chair at one table to the back of an occupied chair at another, so some restaurants allow 7 feet or more, she said.

Another problem is how complaints are filed. Hanscombe said Portland often sees “driving” complaints from people sitting at red lights, looking into a restaurant and thinking the tables are too close.

She said it can be difficult for code enforcement officers to visit a business, where most of the time they don’t see a violation, but still need to talk to the owner about compliance.

“I don’t want anyone to think this is our dream job, to come out and apply COVID-19,” Hanscombe said. “We are simply required to uphold what exists.”



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