'A Double-Edged Sword' - Some Maine Businesses Are Set To Reopen Friday, And Workers Are Wary

May 1, 2020

The first wave of Maine business reopenings starts Friday, under the phased guidance measures Gov. Janet Mills started to issue this week. Some companies, particularly where social distancing is relatively easy, are raring to go. But professionals who work in closer quarters with customers are wary.

"I'm scared to. I'm not going to lie."

Dana Morse cuts hair at a salon in downtown Portland — or he did until COVID-19 shut its doors. Now his salon is preparing to open back up, although not for a couple of weeks.

“It's definitely a double-edged sword,” he says.

Morse says he is anxious to re-engage with the clients he has developed relationships with over the years. He says he understands why after weeks at home they would want to get back in his chair and spruce things up. And he says his boss and colleagues are working on sensible protocols for distancing and disinfection that match the state's guidance.

“I'm planning on going back. (But) I'm scared to. I'm not going to lie,” he says.

And he is a bit perplexed that hair salons would be top of the list of businesses that must be reopened.

A couple walks by a row of closed motels, Wednesday, April 29, 2020, in Old Orchard Beach, Maine.
Credit Robert F. Bukaty / AP Images

"The medical professionals, these are the people on the front line, the people having been forced to work, like the people in the supermarkets, those people are on the front line,” Morse says. “I honestly don't think we're a stage one business, personally. You know, we're not curing cancer. We do hair."

Rachel Helm owns a hair salon in Portland. She and others in the field recently wrote a joint letter to the governor telling her they weren't ready to open. They noted that by their nature, hair salons require close contact with customers, and said Mills was creating a "powder keg of demand."

"You know, we're not curing cancer. We do hair."

"It makes us feel like we are the test subjects for this quote, unquote ‘soft opening,’" says Helm.

Helm adds that the industry is being reactivated just when the state is offering delayed unemployment benefits to self-employed Mainers — a group that includes most hair stylists.

"It's pretty frustrating to have gone six weeks without any financial help, without any guidance or structure,” she says. “We're feeling a little thrown to the wolves."

In other sectors where restrictions are being lifted, business owners seem more comfortable with the changes — even if not exactly sure how to meet all of the state's requirements.

"It's kind of a puzzle, a myriad of things to do and not do."

“It's kind of a puzzle, a myriad of things to do and not do,” says Steve Arnold, who owns marinas in Yarmouth and Naples. “And I think we're kind of ahead of it, probably."

He says his staff has already become well-versed in the disinfection, distancing and density protocols established by the state. He's comfortable holding off on giving potential buyers in-person demos, and he says that service for rental customers won't be quite as hands-on as before.

A message is posted on the front window of the Ranging Bull Saloon
Credit Robert F. Bukaty / AP Images

"Greeting the customer, carrying their bags on the boat, holding their hand to allow them to board the boat, that's not going to happen," he says.

Another issue for sales-heavy businesses is securing enough protective equipment to keep everyone safe. Adam Lee, CEO of Lee Auto Malls, will start opening showrooms on Friday.

"I think it's going to change everything."

"Anybody that's interacting with people, so in the showroom or service department, they need to wear a mask at all times," he says. "And we are going to ask our customers to also, if they want to come into the building, require them to wear a mask. And we're now just trying to round up enough masks to have a supply for customers."

Some of the first enterprises that will come back on line do most of their businesses outdoors, such as hunting and fishing guides or drive-in theaters. Dan Hourihan, owner of Nonesuch River Golf Club in Scarborough, also on the early-open list, says walking the links and social distancing fit together pretty well. Still, he adds, nothing will be the same.

“I think it's going to change everything, even after this is over,” he says. “How we function and how we socialize and how we do transactions. And, hey, it's a new world."

The name of the game now, he says, is adaptation.

For disclosure, Adam Lee is a member of Maine Public’s board of trustees.

Willis Ryder Arnold contributed reporting to this story.

Originally published April 30, 2020 at 5:16 p.m. ET.