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Maine small businesses struggle amid spread of coronavirus, COVID-19

Maine lawmakers, local lenders and state agencies are working hard to help businesses with financial relief during the spread of coronavirus, COVID-19

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Steps to slow the spread of coronavirus, COVID-19 are putting many small businesses in Maine in jeopardy.

People staying home coupled with the state's measures to contain the virus have business owners struggling and scared-- wondering how or if their business will survive.

Jeffrey Blais is one of those business owners. He started taking precautions against COVID-19 weeks ago.

"First it was just we have to get some Clorox wipes then it was limiting the amount of staff members I had in the salon, spreading out people in the salon."

But as reports of cases started popping up in Maine and Cumberland County started registering evidence of "community" spread -Blais became increasingly concerned about the health of his employees and his clients.

"I was trying to stay open as long as I could but just couldn't stay open anymore and feel good about it. I was not keeping my staff or my clients safe by sanitizing and wiping down doorknobs."

On Wednesday, he decided to close Akari --a business that's been open in downtown Portland for 30 years.  He hopes it'll be for just a couple of weeks. 

"How long is it going to go on and when am I going to be able to operate normally? It's really stressful" Blais said.

Other business owners can relate.

"Sunday we noticed we were down. Monday and Tuesday--crickets" Mike Concannon said.

Concannon, the owner of C Salt gourmet market in Cape Elizabeth says the pandemic couldn't have come at a worse time for people in the restaurant industry. 

While January and February are traditionally slow months…March is when business usually starts to pick up.

"Just when you started to see maybe a little tick then it just went off the cliff," Concannon said.

C Salt is now only open for take out and curbside pickup. Concannon also does some deliveries, particularly for the elderly, who don't want to leave their homes.

"It's terrifying for a small a business owner but I know pretty much everyone is in the same boat," Concannon said.

And that could be devastating to Maine's economy. 

According to the US Small Business Administration, 99 percent of businesses in Maine are small businesses.

And those businesses employ 56 percent of Maine's workforce.

"Certainly it is a very difficult time for small businesses but there are some resources there to support them," said Heather Johnson, Commissioner of the Maine Department of Community Development.

Johnson says Maine is one of the first states to be approved for US Small Business Administration loans, which offer up to $2 million in capital to help keep a business afloat. 

She also points to emergency legislation Governor Mills signed on Wednesday which establishes a consumer loan guarantee program through the Finance Authority of Maine.

FAME announced Thursday it will partner with the SBA and financial institutions to provide low or no interest loans, and loan insurance for businesses affected by COVID-19.

"This could include more flexible loan terms, relaxed underwriting and special lower interest rates," said Bill Norbert, the Governmental Affairs and Communications Manager for FAME.

Norbert says federal loans can take time but FAME is looking to help bridge that financial gap.

"FAME is looking to work with the SBA on intra-(agency) measures to provide that funding sooner."

 That support is comforting to many business owners struggling to stay in business.

"it's not just my livelihood keeping this business going it's the livelihood of 30 employees that I have," said Blais.

Concannon added, "It does calm the nerves as you're saying guess how long is this going to last."

FAME says the programs they are putting into place will help provide 15 million dollars in economic support for approximately 300 small to midsize businesses in Maine.

On Wednesday Senator Susan Collins proposed a $300 billion relief package to aid small businesses. The program could forgive business loans that are used strictly to cover payroll.

How can the community help? As we social distance Mainers are being urged to utilize take out from restaurants or buy gift cards to help keep a business's cash flow going.  

At NEWS CENTER Maine, we're focusing our news coverage on the facts and not the fear around the illness. To see our full coverage, visit our coronavirus section, here: /coronavirus

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