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May 27, 2020

Maine brewers urge state to tweak reopening timelines

Sean Sullivan standing by shelves of beer File Photo / Tim Greenway Sean Sullivan, executive director of the Maine Brewers' Guild.

Maine brewers are pressing officials to tweak the state's business reopening timelines, allowing brewers with safe outdoor seating to open their doors to the public on June 1, a month ahead of the current schedule.

Members of the nonprofit Maine Brewers' Guild, led by Executive Director Sean Sullivan, argue that the ability to offer outdoor services should be the determining factor for when a brewery, bar or restaurant can reopen, rather than a liquor license classification.

Sullivan said the situation is complicated by the fact that liquor licenses aren't drawn on easily identifiable lines.

"Given that breweries were deemed an essential service, it was our hope that when the reopening plan was announced that breweries would be categorized with restaurants for a June 1 reopening," he told Mainebiz on Wednesday.

"We know many tough decisions are being made, and the pace of reopening for some may be uncomfortable, and that is exactly why we feel a science-based approach of prioritizing outdoor seating and ignoring the arbitrary liquor license classification would be the ideal way forward," he added.

He also said that while the trade group had been engaged in conversations with the office of Gov. Janet Mills and the state's Department of Economic and Community Development throughout the shutdown, they have been "stuck at this timetable for reopening despite requests for reconsideration." 

There was no immediate response to a request for comment from the governor's office and the DECD.

The Maine Brewers' Guild represents the state's craft beer industry, which contributed $260 million to the Maine economy in 2017. The pandemic has forced many brewers to close their on-site tap rooms and prompted several to shift to online sales for curbside pickup or make more cans for store distribution, as the Maine Brew Bus conducts virtual tours.

'Significant concerns'

Under Mills's staged reopening plan, restaurants in Maine's four most populous counties can open on June 1, while bars will have to wait until July 1. The plan does not specifically mention breweries or brew pubs, but the implication is that they are in the same classification as bars.

The Maine Brewers' Guild sees that as unfair, raising "significant concerns" about the state's methodology for determining which establishments are allowed to open when.

"Instead of relying on science and data to create reopening timelines, as has been promised by our leaders, the state is using liquor license classifications as the sole determinant of when restaurants, bars, or breweries can reopen," the group said in a statement released Thursday.The group noted that in Vermont, New Hampshire and Boston, leaders have taken steps to prioritize opening businesses with outdoor seating, while recently released CDC guidelines for reopening make no distinction between restaurants and bars.

"Maine brewers are fully prepared and plan to adhere to the same standards as restaurants," the Brewers' Guild said, "underscoring that the difference between opening June 1 and July 1 isn't about beer, but about people, Mainers and a better way forward."

As the industry awaits a checklist from the DECD for bars, the Maine Brewers' Guild pointed to its flexibility in these uncertain times.

"Challenging times require innovation and our brewers have adapted rapidly to changing consumer preferences and new metrics for safe service, offering curbside pickup and beer deliveries," the group said in its release.

"But this is not enough, and while brewers in New Hampshire and Vermont reopen with outdoor seating, Maine breweries are at a competitive disadvantage and on the verge of shuttering for good."

Maine Brew Bus reaction

Courtesy / Maine Brew Bus
Don Littlefield, general manager of the Maine Brew Bus

Don Littlefield, general manager of the Maine Brew Bus, had this reaction to the news of the latest plea by the Maine Brewers' Guild:

"The Maine Brew Bus has no tour options until our partner establishments are open and are able to welcome the public," he told Mainebiz. "We support a closer look from the state to allow Maine's breweries to open up safely to guests much sooner than July."

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