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Restaurant owners in Maine aim to protect servers and other front-line workers

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

With the surge of the omicron variant across the country, many local officials are considering new restrictions to try to limit the spread. In Portland, Maine, several local restaurants are now calling on the City Council to require customers to get vaccines. Maine Public Radio's Robbie Feinberg has more.

ROBBIE FEINBERG, BYLINE: In November of 2019, Isaac MacDougal opened his cocktail bar Cocktail Mary. Just a few months later, the pandemic upended those plans.

ISAAC MACDOUGAL: So I have been operating very, very cautiously throughout this entire pandemic in an effort to kind of build a clientele and create a space that felt safe for everybody. I didn't have a huge client base coming into this pandemic, so I was kind of walking a pretty thin line throughout the whole thing.

FEINBERG: For more than a year, Cocktail Mary only offered to-go cocktails or limited outdoor seating. The bar opened for indoor dining just a few months ago with precautions. MacDougal says he keeps groups of staff members on the same shifts with each other to limit potential exposure, and once indoor service resumed, vaccines were required for staff and patrons.

MACDOUGAL: Honestly, I haven't gotten any - I haven't had any problems. Everyone has a picture of their vaccine card on them and-or the vaccine card on their person, and everyone feels more comfortable and much more able to relax and much more at ease knowing that everyone else inside is vaccinated.

FEINBERG: Now MacDougal and other Portland restaurant owners are petitioning the city to require proof of vaccination for certain indoor public spaces, including eateries. As of last week, about a dozen restaurants had signed, only a fraction of the total number in the city. Supporters argue that a mandate would help both workers and diners feel safer and help restaurants stay open during the current wave of COVID-19 cases.

MACDOUGAL: My goal with signing this petition is to protect our frontline workers and our health care workers and keep them out of the hospital.

FEINBERG: The petition comes as the Portland City Council is set to consider new COVID-19 restrictions on Monday night. That includes reinstituting a mask mandate, which had been in place across the state through May. Certain businesses requiring vaccines would be exempted. Cities including Boston and Chicago have added their own vaccine requirements amidst the surge of the omicron variant, but other restaurant owners have already pushed back on the Portland petition, saying businesses should be able to decide on their own if they want to require vaccines. Greg Dugal with the trade group HospitalityMaine says he's still waiting for more details on the plan before weighing in.

GREG DUGAL: We have been primarily opposed to mandates. I can't say what our opinion will be on this particular one because, again, we have not seen it.

FEINBERG: Whether Portland will institute new mandates will likely emerge on Monday night, when the City Council is set to meet next.

For NPR News, I'm Robbie Feinberg in Portland, Maine.

(SOUNDBITE OF YONDERLING'S "WEST WINDOW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.