Support Intelligent, In-Depth, Trustworthy Journalism.
Small business owners in Maine that rely on a tourist-filled summer have been shuttering shops since the start of the pandemic. With negotiations over a stimulus package stalled, and the cold season approaching, many of them face a bleak future. Christopher Booker reports as part of our ongoing series, “Roads to Election 2020.”
Negotiations over funding for a new stimulus package seem to have stalled again after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi today called the administration's $ 1.8 trillion offer "insufficient," in part over what Democrats say is inadequate funding for state and local governments.
In our continuing series, Roads to Election 2020, we take you to the state of Maine, where small businesses that typically rely on a summer filled with tourists, have been shuttering since the start of the pandemic. For some, survival has come down to their ability to pay rent, but with no agreement in sight on a new relief package, the future remains bleak for many.
NewsHour Weekend's Christopher Booker has our story.
October is a funny business in Maine. Warm days and cold nights; New England's northern tip offers a confusing waltz between the seasonal past and what is to come. But this October is particularly difficult to read. After a summer nearly canceled by the pandemic, the fall is offering Portland a few extra chances at economic recovery. But, winter is coming, and the brief resumption of business made possible by warmer weather and outdoor space is in its final days.
Mary Alice Scott:
Well, if we continue to get weather like this, we'll be in pretty good shape. But it's Portland and we know that that won't continue for too long.
Mary Alice Scott is the Executive Director of Portland Buy Local, a non-profit organization that works to support and promote 400 local independent and small businesses.
We surveyed members during the height of what would normally be the busy season, and about a third of them said they were considering permanently closing.
Considering closing because this past summer was not really summer at all. Normally, the summer season helps carry businesses through the slower winter months. But July and August brought only a fraction of the normal traffic to Portland's downtown businesses and sales were down substantially.
Initially the CARES ACT, the 2.2 trillion dollar stimulus package passed in March, allowed businesses to use a percentage of bailout funds to pay their rent.
But, Scott says only 11 percent of the businesses she works with were able to receive support for their rent.
Mary Scott Alice:
And now that help has dried up, the program has closed and there doesn't seem to be a new program that will be arriving anytime soon. Everything from restaurants to real estate have been really suffering. They've seen a decline in revenue, sometimes 80, 90 percent.
This is what forced Damian Sansonneti and his wife Ilma Lopez to close their restaurant, Piccolo. When Portland restaurants were allowed to open for dine-in customers, Sansonetti says they owed upward of $20,000 in back rent accumulated during the shutdown. A time when Piccolo had not been generating any revenue. Their landlord was not willing to negotiate their rate going forward.
Unfortunately, due to the COVID pandemic, a 20-seat intimate restaurant with the needed necessities of what you have to do can't survive. So we, unfortunately, had to close permanently that restaurant.
But Sansonneti and his wife are in a somewhat enviable position. They have another restaurant, Chaval. Opened three years ago in large part due to the success of Piccolo, Chaval's winter outlook is a bit better. Sansonneti and his wife own the building.
It's definitely been an advantage for us. But at the same time, it's also we need to make money to pay the mortgage because, you know, our house and everything else is tied to this business, the business.
Like nearly every other restaurant in the country, Chaval was forced to pivot to takeout, and since July, limited outdoor dining.
What percentage of business do you think you're doing compared to a year ago?
We're probably doing 50 to 60 percent less of our business than we were compared to a year ago.
But not every business in Portland has been able to pivot and with the CARES Act funds now depleted, the coming winter looks even more ominous. The State Theatre in downtown Portland hosted its last show on March 11. At the time, general manager Lauren Wayne thought the shutdown would only be temporary.
And I just tried to reassure people that this wasn't a long term thing because at that time we had no idea. And then, you know, two weeks after that, it was different again. And so we met again and the closure was longer. By that point, we had to lay off most of our, if not all of our part-time staff and our seasonal staff. And that was, that was really hard.
How many people?
That was about 170 people. And some of these people have been with us, sorry, since we reopened in 2010. So it was really difficult and still very difficult.
I can imagine. And then you still had your permanent staff?
We still had our ten full-time staff members, which was great. And, you know, without I think the PPP loan, that would have been different. But it's just not enough. And so I had to lay off 40 percent of my full time staff in July, starting in August. And we are all now on reduced salaries and reduced hours. What's remaining of us.
Despite the staggering losses, like Chaval, the State Theatre is in an enviable position—the parent company owns the building. Wayne doesn't see the State Theatre opening its doors again under normal circumstances until a year from now, while their smaller venue just down the block, Port City Music Hall, is closed for good.
This is an absolutely dire situation. We have no hope of opening this year. I mean, what business can survive generating zero revenue for over a year? I don't know any business or industry that can. So if we do not see some kind of targeted federal legislation to this industry in particular, it will be massive closures across the whole country. And in Portland, Maine in particular, that's going to hurt really bad.
Portland's small businesses aren't the only ones who are worrying about what comes next.
I was in municipal government. I was on the school board during the Great Recession and we would gladly go back to that, frankly.
Justin Costa has been a Portland city councilman for six years.
The revenue loss is so steep, the uncertainty is so great that all you can try to do is spread the pain as equitably as possible.
At the end of September, the city announced it was eliminating 65 positions, mainly in Parks and Recreation.
We know that ultimately for most businesses, this is about cash flow and the city is only the smallest player in that. What we really need is continuing support from the federal government. That's the only thing that's really going to make a dent in the issues that most businesses are facing right now.
Because it's not like there's money available at the state.
Right. Yeah. The, the state coffers are also strained for many of the same reasons.
So then where does this leave Portland?
It's like a false reality right now, right? You see people waiting and drinking beer and you're like, oh, you're back to normal. This is not normal and it's not going to be normal for quite some time. So I think Portland is going to see it in the next few months. It's gonna be pretty bad.
The frustrating thing for me is that it's a choice, right? It is a choice that politicians are making to not create new policies. And in doing so, they are allowing local businesses to fail. And if we don't get new policies from the federal government in particular, pretty quickly, then we're going to see scores of local businesses closing in Portland and across the country.
Watch the Full Episode
Christopher Booker is a correspondent and producer for PBS NewsHour Weekend covering music, culture, our changing economy and news of the cool and weird. He also teaches at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, following his work with Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism in Chicago and Doha, Qatar.
Mori Rothman has produced stories on a variety of subjects ranging from women’s rights in Saudi Arabia to rural depopulation in Kansas. Mori previously worked as a producer and writer at ABC News and as a production assistant on the CNN show Erin Burnett Outfront.
Support Provided By:
Support PBS NewsHour:
Subscribe to Here’s the Deal, our politics newsletter for analysis you won’t find anywhere else.
Thank you. Please check your inbox to confirm.
Additional Support Provided By: