First Night Out

First Night Out First Night Out

Big Thing! I had my first restaurant experience since way back before the COVID pandemic first set in, which seems like ancient history now. I can’t remember the last time I went to a restaurant.

Last weekend while sheltering in Maine at my father in law’s home, my brother-in-law invited us out to dinner. Maine had entered Phase 2 of its reopening, and restaurants were allowed to offer dine-in service again, with restrictions.

It was the time of year when the summer tourist season begins and businesses that have been closed all winter open again. When my brother-in-law first mentioned going out to Barnacle Billy’s in Ogunquit, Maine, our favorite lobster restaurant, I was thrilled. Then I remembered the pandemic.

I hadn’t even thought of going to a restaurant for months. I had been assiduously sheltering in place and in no hurry to change that.

But the reopening plan for Maine seemed to be rationally based on safety measures that have been developed by doctors and epidemiologists over months of dealing with the pandemic. And my brother-in-law is a surgeon. He wouldn’t participate in something that was not within strict standards of safety.

Eyes Wide Open
Since this whole thing started I’ve been addicted to news reports and articles, learning as much as I can about COVID and the best practices for staying safe.

The day we planned to go out to dinner I had heard an interview on NPR with epidemiologist Michael Osterholm, the founder and director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota and the author of Deadliest Enemy: Our War Against Killer Germs.

The knowledge he shared was reassuring, not because he played down the danger. He didn’t. He said this is going to be with us a long time, and we need to learn how to live with it. But what was reassuring was that he provided a vivid model of how transmission works and practical strategies for staying safe.

He reinforced the growing consensus that masks and social distancing in public places are the most effective way to stop the spread. Hand-washing and sanitization are essential elements in all disease prevention, but Osterholm emphasized that the main concern with COVID is transmission through aerosolized droplets of moisture in our breath.

“This is really all about air,” he said, “breathing someone else’s air where the virus is present… It’s the air that we share with each other that is critical. That’s why distancing is so important.”

Enclosed spaces are riskier than outdoors.

“When you and I talk, we fill a room full of aerosols,” he said. With a special camera, “you can actually see aerosols fill the room … after just 20 or 30 minutes of talking. So anything that moves air and moves that out more quickly is surely helpful.”

The outdoors has its own natural air conditioning.

“The virus dissipates quite quickly into the air,” he said. “If there’s any air movements around, it literally blows the cloud away and, in a sense, disintegrates it. And so that would mean a lot less exposure to someone breathing the air near someone else who might be infected.”

Time is also a factor.

“I think people often think of transmission with this virus almost like tag” he said. “I get close to somebody who’s infected — ‘Tag! You’re now it.’ It’s not at all. It is time related. We’re working on this, and it may be that you need many minutes to be in an environment where this virus is in the air and you need to inhale it in, and the amount of breathing that you do at a certain level before you get infected, it’s not just a yes or no. It’s a threshold.”

First Night OutA Family Tradition Upended
These thoughts were in my mind when my brother-in-law invited the family out. We called Barnacle Billy’s and they said they had just opened that day.

Barnacle Billy’s has been a cherished tradition in my family. It’s one of those reassuring institutions that is always there, constant, unchanging. Its lobby has a photograph of the founder, Barnacle Billy himself, with George H.W. Bush, who was a patron of the restaurant for years, and once famously came with Bill Clinton and a crowd of Secret Service agents.

Barnacle’s is rustic, with unvarnished wooden plank tables, not fancy or delicate. It’s for people who love to feast on lobster, and the décor looks rough and ready to accommodate their hunger.

The tables have big wooden napkin holders, stuffed with a stack of napkins six inches high. They offer trademarked plastic bibs, but most Barnacle’s patrons are hardcore lobster lovers and not concerned about the mess. It’s mostly hand food, but if you need a fork for salad or a spoon for your hot fudge sundae or coffee, it will be plastic. I said rustic. But such luscious food! No pretension.

Normally we would walk through the screen door in front into a small corridor with a counter where you would get in line to order your lobsters or clams. After ordering you would step down the counter to the cashier and pay. She would give you a receipt with a number and then you would walk three steps down to the dining hall, find a table and seat yourself.

The wait staff would come to offer you drinks while you waited. When your orders were ready the front desk would call your number, once for the steamed clams, and then again when the lobsters were ready.

This time all that was gone. Barnacle’s was transformed. I wondered how they would do it, since the previous arrangement was not acceptable by today’s standards. But when their new plan unfolded before me I was impressed. They handled it really well, in a way that did not make me feel endangered, or that I was missing anything.

When we approached the building, masks in place, we were directed away from the front door and around the side of the building, where the outdoor seating is. The hosts and wait staff wore face masks. The tables were widely separated so that I never felt close to anyone.

We wanted to sit outside, but when we arrived there were no tables available. We were directed inside, from the back. It was Barnacle Billy’s dining room, but was barely recognizable. They had actually built a wall through the middle of the room. It blocked out the public spaces and much of the dining area.

The dining room that had always been crowded with tables full of people was reduced to one row of four tables, at least 20 feet apart, all next to wide open windows. The self-service ordering was gone, replaced by full table service. The waitress wore a mask and gloves and discreetly sanitized the wine bottle she brought. Every action communicated a new, finely tuned awareness of necessary safety precautions that were never needed before.

We got our favorite table, in the corner with wide open windows on two sides at 90 degrees. The sea breeze gave us constant fresh air and ventilation.

As hypersensitive to the danger as I’ve become, I didn’t feel a security breach. We had to remove our masks to eat. But we were far from anyone else and the ventilation was almost like being outdoors.

So it turned out to be a great experience. Barnacle Billy’s, which had barely changed in half a century, had to radically change its way of doing business. But they rose to the occasion beautifully and created a situation that took into consideration the current consensus of what constitutes safety, and still replicated the essence of the experience they have traditionally provided.

After being worried initially, I relaxed and had a good meal, my first restaurant experience in a long time.

Barnacle Billy’s will be able to return to a more normal way of doing business at some point, but for now whatever we may have lost of what we loved before may have been compensated for by seeing how creatively they dealt with the handicaps.

Those kinds of experiences bolster my confidence in the tremendous creativity and adaptability of people. This pandemic hit the whole world, and every individual or business has to adapt. The results are often inspiring. Necessity is the mother of invention.

So although this pandemic has forced travelers to be stay-at-homers, when we do start traveling again, there will be this new element. Everything will have been transformed by what we have all been through. I’m looking forward to that.

Your humble reporter

A. Colin Treadwell

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