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Facing Loss Of Tourism Income, Maine Business Groups Ask For $800 Million Bailout From The State

Rebecca Conley
Maine Public
Old Orchard Beach in May.

A broad coalition of hospitality, tourism and retail groups in Maine is calling for the state to spend an ambitious $800 million to prop up the teetering industry.

Restaurateur Steve DiMillo says that for the first weeks after reopening his iconic waterfront restaurant for curbside service in downtown Portland, he was burning through $35,000 a week and bringing in only $10,000.

“We were losing $100,000 a month. We just opened our decks this week. Things are looking better, but we’re winging it every day,” he says.

DiMillo says the federal Payroll Protection Program has helped him pay a portion of his staff, but not the full 150 he normally takes on through the all-important summer season. And his allotment is running out.

Credit Fred Bever / Maine Public
Maine Public
Steve DiMillo (left) at a press conference Friday.

That’s why he lent his scenic wharf to an array of organizations to unveil their plan for an $800 million bailout for tourism-dependent businesses in Maine.

“We have a big problem that requires a big solution. And that’s what we’re proposing today,” says Steve Hewins, president of Hospitality Maine.

Hewins says such a massive cash infusion is necessary to tide over the tourism industry, which provides 1 in 6 jobs in Maine.

“We took a look at the need, the numbers of businesses that we could impact with this money. We’re talking in excess of 10,000 businesses in the state that fall into the category. And to offer meaningful assistance we need that big number,” he says.

The plan would dedicate $400 million in grants to businesses with fewer than 50 workers, for items such as rent and mortgage payments, enhanced safety features and utility expenses. Another $300 million would go to companies with between 50 and 500 workers. And $50 million would go to help workers with essential expenses such as child care, transportation and health care.

“There needs to be relief, now,” says Curtis Picard, president of the Maine Retail Association.

Picard says more than half the 101,000 Mainers who’ve lost work since the pandemic arrived are employed in lodging, restaurants or retail stores. And he notes that a federal boost of $600 a week in unemployment assistance will end in late July.

“We’re right in the middle of the tourism season. It’s Friday, it’s a beautiful day right now, the turnpike should be packed with cars right now, this dock should be packed with cars, and it’s not,” he says.

The coalition members say while public health is essential to Maine’s successful reopening, Mills’ quarantine and testing requirements for out-of-state visitors are among the most restrictive in the region, resulting in a tidal wave of cancellations that has already put some out of business for good.

The coalition wants Gov. Janet Mills to tap an as-yet-unspent $1.25 billion allotment from the federal CARES Act. But at the daily Center for Disease Control briefing Friday, she said she was unsure of whether the feds would allow it.

“The COVID-19 Relief fund, the language of the bill says it’s to be used basically for COVID-related expenses. Not necessarily backfilling people’s revenue losses, government or nongovernment,” she said.

New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu, meanwhile, has already dedicated $400 million of his state’s federal allotment to grants for small businesses that are losing money due to the pandemic, to cover operating and legal costs.

Mills has tried to offer some relief to Maine’s tourism sector, though. Vermont and New Hampshire residents can now stay at Maine lodging establishments without having to quarantine or get tested. And she is pushing up the date on which visitors from the rest of the country can stay at Maine lodgings, as long as they meet the quarantine or testing guidance.

Instead of Wednesday, July 1, lodgings can open the doors to visitors from outside northern New England on Friday, June 26.

Correction: Steve DiMillo, not DeMillo, was quoted in this story.

Originally posted 4:16 p.m. June 12, 2020.

A Columbia University graduate, Fred began his journalism career as a print reporter in Vermont, then came to Maine Public in 2001 as its political reporter, as well as serving as a host for a variety of Maine Public Radio and Maine Public Television programs. Fred later went on to become news director for New England Public Radio in Western Massachusetts and worked as a freelancer for National Public Radio and a number of regional public radio stations, including WBUR in Boston and NHPR in New Hampshire.