Two Belfast restaurants, Nautilus and Bowen’s Tavern, are closing their doors temporarily because of drastic decreases in business.The decisions also come after encounters with an employee of Darby’s who tested positive for COVID-19.

Nautilus closed temporarily after one of its employees came into contact with an employee from Darby’s who tested positive for the coronavirus, owner Rosamond Peters said. She opened back up briefly before deciding to close until the end of January.

Though none of the restaurant's employees tested positive for the coronavirus, many of her staff had apprehensions about continuing to work when they are not making any money in tips, she said.

The restaurant’s business is down to about 20 to 30 customers per day, including takeout orders, she said. This time last year, the restaurant was getting about 80 customers per day. At this point, it would cost her more to stay open than to be closed.

The fear of COVID-19 and the decreased business have taken a financial and mental toll on employees, Peters said. Servers are used to seeing a decline in tips during the winter, but they are disheartened by dwindling numbers of customers, despite a large dining room that has spaced seating and good ventilation.

Nautilus bartender and server Kelley Nelson said she could see the signs of the closure coming. She sympathizes with Peters and thinks the owners did all they could to avoid a temporary closure.

It was sad being at work when there were barely any customers, she said. But at the same time, she was anxious about the increased number of COVID-19 infections.

She applied for unemployment after Nautilus closed Dec. 6, but does not expect to get a response from the Unemployment Office soon, she said. She has worked in the service industry for 35 years and if she cannot find another server job, then she will have to contemplate changing industries, which causes her more anxiety.

If Nautilus reopens at the end of January, she hopes she can return to the restaurant, she said. “It’s hard for everybody right now, especially people in the restaurant industry. It’s your livelihood.”

The closure will allow Peters and her husband to complete some renovations and focus on another business. She intends to follow the situation and is hopeful that they will be able to open at the end of January.

“This is just the strangest series of events that we’ve ever encountered,” she said. “So, hopefully for the sake of the community and my employees, we can reopen. … If it’s just not feasible, we’ll play it week by week or day by day.”

Bowen’s Tavern, faced with similar financial issues, will close at the end of December until the beginning of March, owner Bridget Bowen said. The restaurant and bar has had to reduce the number of hours it is open and is dealing with a 50% decrease in business compared to this time last year.

The hospitality industry in Maine is expected to decrease from $4.3 billion in sales to as little as $2.5 billion, according to University of Maine economists Todd Gabe and Andrew Crawley. Seventy percent of taxable sales in Maine’s hospitality industry are generated by restaurants.

Bowen and her husband, Mike, encountered someone who was in contact with the COVID-19 positive Darby’s server, but were not infected and quarantined themselves, she said. They closed the tavern for three days instead of trying to manage it remotely during their quarantine. They were not at the building at any time after their possible exposure.

Like Nautilus, they will save money by being closed rather than open, she said. She is confident that the restaurant will have the means to reopen sometime early in March, but closing temporarily is the best decision to preserve the business, she said.

Darby’s closed for two weeks and cleaned the building after it learned one of its employees had tested positive for COVID-19, owner Cory Chase said. No other employees were infected and all virus tests came back negative.

Chase said business at Darby’s was OK for a while, despite being down 50% compared to last year. But the outlook for local restaurants decreased again when an outbreak associated with a church in Brooks led to at least 62 confirmed coronavirus cases throughout the county.

“After the Brooks outbreak, the bottom seemed to fall out and I think you’ll find that with most of the businesses in town,” he said. Darby’s is not expected to close, he said.