While stalling the progress of the new coronavirus around the country and in Maine is the focus of attention today, the national and local economies are taking a beating. Business owners in Maine's biggest employment sector — the hospitality industry — are trying to strategize for survival.
Business seemed brisk early Thursday evening at the Hunt & Alpine Club, a seven-year old restaurant on Portland's peninsula whose rise has paralleled the city's foodie scene. But co-owner Briana Volk says it's not as busy as it should be.
"This is much lower. We've seen, over probably the past week, that we've been down a pretty recognizable percentage. From the beginning of the year we actually had been trending up. So this is a noticeable hit to us."
Volk is emphasizing her dedication to protecting customer safety — cleanliness is a hallmark of a good restaurant, after all — and protecting her tip-dependent employee's wallets. But she sees the coming weeks as an all-too-real stress test for the enterprise.
“We're just seeing less people from out of town, less people that are traveling, which is part of the Portland and Maine economy, a huge part of having tourism and having people travel. So to see a dent in that is frightening, and concerning."
This is ordinarily a slower season for the state's hospitality industry, but Steve Hewins, executive director of Hospitality Maine, the industry trade group, says that makes long-scheduled meetings, conferences and other events an essential part of keeping a healthy revenue stream flowing.
“They're seeing cancellations, pretty significantly, especially in the hotel side of things. People that are cancelling individual bookings, but probably more importantly right now canceling meetings and events that are very important to the profitability of restaurants and hotels.”
That interview took place on Thursday before Gov. Janet Mills called for an end to any events involving indoor gatherings of more than 250 people.
Mills' Commissioner of Economic and Community Development, Heather Johnson, says it's all-hands-on-deck to react effectively to the developing crisis, and try to save the summer tourist season. One clear goal: adjust strategies for what could be a season that's more dependent on visitors driving to Maine, but not getting here by plane or cruise ship. That means some quick changes in a national, multi-media marketing blitz focused on the state's bicentennial that's about to launch.
"It's just this really compelling campaign, and now I think we need to think about how we use that campaign a little bit differently, and attracting people from flyable markets may not be a great investment in this particular moment, but there may be other investments right now that are a better use for people."
Johnson met today Friday with small business representatives to try to get a better handle on what kinds of information and resources they need.
"We already have a site called "Business Answers" that DECD runs, and we are adding and updating those programs to that site so people can easily find them. We'll continue to push them out in a number of venues, including social media, as well."
And she is working with the banking community, the Small Business Administration and the Finance Authority of Maine to design a quick package of low-cost loans that could help tide businesses over with fixed costs or even payroll support.
At Hunt & Alpine, Briana Volk is looking for something more robust, like a grant program funded by the state's rainy day fund — particularly if the government shuts down restaurants.
"Really doing things that are focused on helping the workers in the state so that they know they'll be able to pay rent, that their utilities won't be shut off , that they'll have access to food, childcare, and they'll find ways to do those things without having to take on more debt."
Volk is being proactive — communicating with colleagues in Seattle, for instance, about tactics they are devising to stay afloat amidst that community's early experience with the virus. So for those who aren't comfortable dining out right now but still want to support their local establishment, she is promoting gift cards. And she says she is likely to start a new segment of the business dedicated to takeout.
Originally published 3:23 p.m. March 13, 2020