More than 250 small businesses have asked Gov. Janet Mills to consider stepping in to help them avoid financial collapse, as southern Maine’s mammoth food and beverage industry begins to shut down in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

In a joint letter issued Monday, the business owners said a sudden disruption in business because of measures taken to limit the virus’ spread was presenting serious financial hardships at the worst possible time.

The letter was co-signed by representatives of at least 250 small businesses across the state. Most of Maine’s breweries and many restaurants, as well as farms, nonprofit organizations, barber shops and other small enterprises signed on.

Small businesses, especially those in the hospitality industry “should be ramping up production and services for our busy spring and summer seasons,” the letter reads. “Instead, some small businesses have been forced to close due to college closures and a complete drop in business.”

January and February are the toughest months for the state’s food and beverage industry, but March is typically when sales begin to pick up and businesses prepare for a rush of seasonal tourists and a busy summer season.

Many food and beverage businesses would like to close their dining areas and shift to delivery or take-out orders only, but don’t know if they can afford to make the move, they said in the letter. People are increasingly staying home and out of public places, while state and federal public health officials have recommended limiting gatherings to fewer than 10 people.

Many restaurants in Portland and elsewhere have shifted to take-out orders or closed their doors in response to the crisis.

Even with no money coming in, business still have to find a way to pay employees, rent, utilities and debt, the letter said.

“We, as small business owners, are concerned not only about keeping our employees and patrons safe and healthy, but also how we can survive,” it reads.

Businesses have asked Mills for a proclamation from the state encouraging lenders to consider loan deferments for three months after the national emergency declared last week by President Trump is over.

Loan deferment would allow businesses to focus on using the remaining money to pay employees and give them time to restore production chains and wholesale relationships after the crisis passes.

If deferment is not possible, the state could consider zero-interest small business loans to help businesses keep up with lease payments and other costs, it added.

Rep. Mattie Daughtry, D-Brunswick, who drafted the letter, said existing measures to relieve economic crises, including low-interest disaster loans from the U.S. Small Business Administration, may not go far enough to keep businesses afloat.

“I think we need to really shift our conversations and status quo to be nimble and recognize that this could go on for quite a while,” said Daughtry, who owns Moderation Brewing Co. in Brunswick with her partner. “We are in it together, and the whole board is shifting for all of us. We need to be patient and put our heads together and do what we need to for the state of Maine.”

Arabica Coffee on Free Street, shown in a 2013 photo, has stopped serving customers during the coronavirus crisis, citing the need to keep the public and staff safe, but is still selling roasted coffee beans for take-out or delivery. Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

On Sunday, Mills announced she had asked the SBA to make disaster loans available to businesses impacted by coronavirus, and on Monday it granted that request. The governor also introduced legislation to allow Mainers out of work because of the virus to apply for unemployment insurance.

Cathy Rasco, owner of Arabica Coffee, made the hard decision to close both of her Portland cafes Monday morning.

“It just felt like the right thing to do to keep the staff and the public safe,” Rasco said, adding that she still will sell roasted coffee beans for take-out or delivery.

Her decision was made after the number of positive cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus, grew in Maine, and other places including New York and Boston moved to close down restaurants and cafes, she said.

But what that means for her business and 26 employees is impossible to say. Unemployment insurance will help, but her staff still will be vulnerable, Rasco said. She’s nervous about taking on more liability, even through a low-interest loan from the federal government.

“I really hope government steps up – this is when we need government, right now,” Rasco said. “I am looking more to the state, I feel the state is going to have our backs much more than the federal government.”

Related Headlines


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.