NORWAY — As COVID-19 continues its unpredictable spread it also has left acts of kindness and love in its wake. Local businesses have been buoyed by their customers. Neighbors have stepped up to look out for and provide assistance to each other. Educators have worked tirelessly to invent new ways to engage students during an unprecedented disruption of their education.

In Oxford Hills, the accounts of community support continue to rack up.

Every Friday for about two months all of Bessey Motors’ employees enjoyed a complimentary lunch from three area restaurants, courtesy of dealership owner John Emerson.

“As things began shutting down because of the pandemic, we wanted to do something for the communities’ businesses,” said John Emerson. “It was a way to support small businesses and do something for our employees during a tough time.”

Bessey Motors bought all 38 of its employees lunch from three area take-out restaurants each Friday during Maine’s shelter-at-home order. Nicole Carter / Advertiser Democrat

Bessey Motors posted the idea on its Facebook, asking page viewers and take-out restaurants to let them know which ones were open. The post collected more than 250 likes, 51 post share and 64 comments.

“We have three departments, sales, service and parts and the body shop,” said Emerson. “Each department chose from Friday to Friday where they wanted lunch from and we ordered from those three restaurants. I think we’ve had Chinese take-out from every possible place in the area.”

Over six weeks Bessey’s 38 employees enjoyed Friday meals from about a dozen different restaurants and sandwich shops until Oxford county was given the green light to reopen its economy.

Even though Emerson said Bessey has been affected by the pandemic too, he felt it was an important gesture to make for the community.

“It’s been a weird sales environment, especially through April,” Emerson said. “With a 60% reduction in cars on the road, our body shop has not seen much work come in. Service has been slow too, as people understandably were cautious about having others inside their vehicles.”

Emerson said the service department bought garage-type personal protective equipment like seat and steering wheel covers, utilized face shields and followed a careful sanitization process for each vehicle, but like in the medical field, health and safety supplies were hard to come by, including the disinfectant products.

Overall, Bessey’s vehicle sales were spotty as well, he said. Some days brought nothing but on others customers would come in and purchase vehicles.

“The manufacturers have had good incentives,” Emerson said. “It attracted customers who maybe hadn’t planned on a vehicle but the numbers worked in their advantage.”

Emerson has a guarded outlook for the rest of the year.

“With part makers and car manufacturers shut down this spring, we won’t see any new inventory until August,” he said. “In the used car market, most auctions have been closed and that’s a big source for us. We have taken in trades that maybe don’t fit with our product lines, but with the auctions closed we had to sit on them.”

Used cars sales have rebounded a bit since last week but any spike in COVID-19 cases could shut down carmakers again. And with some of the smaller after-market suppliers going out of business for good or having to file for bankruptcy it will be awhile before Bessey’s body shop operations are back to normal.

“Early on, as this came on, people hoped for a V-shaped recovery, a quick rebound,” said Emerson. “I think this is going to be more of a W-shape where we do rebound, but then bottom out again before the economy comes back.”

More recently, Oxford Federal Credit Union has come up with an innovative way to help small businesses in Oxford county. They offered free advertising through their marquis roadside signs at the Mexico branch on Route 2 and the Norway branch on Route 26.

“It was time to refresh the slides for our digital signage,” said Lisa Marston, the credit union’s marketing director. “There happened to be an interim period before the new messages would be ready and I wanted to add new content, so I thought about offering the space to small businesses, give them a way to let the public know they’re here.

“The messages rotate every seven seconds and each business can put whatever it wants in, whether they are open, or reopening, list their phone number, whatever.”

Like Bessey Motors, OFCU took to its Facebook page to announce the advertising program; to participate business owners only had to comment with their advertising message. Marston also reached out to the River Valley Chamber of Commerce in Rumford and the Oxford Hills Chamber of Commerce in South Paris to get the word out.

Twenty-five businesses signed up to participate in Norway and another fifteen in Rumford.

The advertising began displaying on May 20 and will run through this Sunday.

Perhaps nowhere has community support been in as strong as in Hebron. Neighborhood take-out and convenience store The Storekeepers has partnered with a few benefactors to keep their lights on through the pandemic while providing customers with full stomachs through small acts of kindness.

Between March 19 and 28 State Representative John Andrews sponsored a buy-one-get-one sale at the store. Andrews bought every customer who purchased a large pizza an additional large cheese pizza.

Even with Andrews’ assistance business dropped so quickly because of the pandemic that the Francises had to lay off help and reduce store hours. And then a local customer called owner Beth Francis and asked her to meet him for a favor.

The Storekeepers owners Beth and Lon Francis have distributed $50 gift certificates in Hebron, courtesy of John Pratt’s business, Pratt & Sons Construction. Nicole Carter / Advertiser Democrat

“John Pratt called me and we talked here at the store, outside,” Francis recalled. “And he said he wanted to help Hebron with some economic stimulus. He handed me an envelope with a check inside and he said to use it to pay for groceries for customers during the pandemic. I was overwhelmed when I saw that check, close to tears.”

Pratt had instructions for Francis. The money was to be used for groceries only – no gas or vice purchases like alcohol, cigarettes or lottery tickets. But Francis told him she thought it would be nice to apply it to take-out orders as well, that in a tough time a pizza for dinner could provide a family with an emotional boost. Pratt agreed, telling her to disperse with the funds for food however she and her husband decided. His only other contingencies were that the first 10% of the money go to store operations before starting any giveaways and that they charged full retail prices on everything they sold.

Francis and her husband Lon decided the best way to distribute food from the store would be through gift certificates. Francis wrote out each one. The amounts were all $50, compliments of Pratt & Sons Construction. So far about half of the certificates have been redeemed.

The couple knew right away many in need who they would give gift certificates to but didn’t have addresses for everyone. They reached out to Hebron Station School principal DJ Thorne and tasked him with including certificates with SAD 17’s bus run meal delivery for some families. The two also spent a day driving around Hebron, taking note of people’s addresses.

Knowing she would not be able to get all the mailing addresses completely correct, Francis contacted the post office for guidance on how to make sure those incomplete addresses would make it through the system. Local officials guaranteed that each one would be successfully delivered. And another surprise came when the regional post mistress in South Paris called Francis to say she had personally purchased stamps to help defray the delivery expense.

“This gift has had a huge impact on our store,” Francis said. “And our customers have been thankful for the help. We are humbled and blessed.

“A few people were surprised and felt awkward accepting it when they didn’t really need it. But we insisted. This is as much for emotional as financial support. John has been so generous and we have been able to deliver exactly what he intended.”

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