Chris Bracy, owner of The Downtown Press Cafe in Farmington, talks Thursday about the impact the coronavirus may have on his business. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Business owners in college towns across Maine are bracing for untold losses as many campus activities are canceled because of coronavirus concerns and students are sent home with plans to study remotely for the remainder of the spring semester.

Troy Genest, owner of the Hott Dogg House in Augusta, said it would be “a matter of days” before his restaurant felt the strain of classes being interrupted at the University of Maine at Augusta.

“Any fluctuation in traffic is going to hurt everybody,” Genest said. “Kids spend money, especially college students.”

At the Downtown Press Cafe in Farmington, owner Chris Bracy said he’s worried about the pending transition to online instruction at the University of Maine at Farmington. He and his wife, Brianna, are new to the business and many of their customers and employees are college students.

“We’ve only had this place a little over a year,” Bracy said. “A good portion of our business does come from the college.”

On Tuesday, the University of Maine System urged students at the state’s seven universities to remain on campus through next week’s spring break. By Wednesday, students were directed to head home as soon as possible and prepare for distance learning to start March 23.

Similar steps have been taken at Bowdoin College in Brunswick and Colby College in Waterville. And on Thursday, Maine College of Art in Portland and the Maine Community College System announced plans to extend ongoing or upcoming spring breaks by one to two weeks.

In Gorham, pending changes at the University of Southern Maine’s residential campus drew mixed feelings. A white-board sign at the Aroma Joe’s coffee shop said goodbye to several employees who are leaving “so soon.”

At the Hannaford supermarket in Gorham, Berkeley Elias said the shift to distance learning will have a big impact on his life. A junior engineering major, Elias said he has already stopped going to the gym and eating out.

Eileen Horner, owner of the Brunswick Inn, wiped tears from her eyes Thursday as she prepared to meet with her eight employees after news that Bowdoin College would send students home to study remotely for the rest of the semester. “I have been working on this since last night,” she said, “and I still don’t know what I am going to say.” Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

“Everyone keeps talking about social distancing, so I’m trying to take practical measures like that,” said Elias, 26. “My whole life is at USM. Two work study jobs. All my friends.”

At the University of Maine in Orono, the coronavirus response intensified Thursday morning when college officials announced that hockey fans wouldn’t be allowed inside Alfond Arena this weekend for a three-game quarterfinal tournament between the Black Bears and the University of Connecticut.

By Thursday afternoon, the Hockey East Association had canceled the 2020 men’s hockey tournament for New England colleges, ending a stellar season way too early for the Black Bears and heightening concerns among businesses that benefit from college events.

Sherri Cunningham, manager of the iconic Pat’s Pizza in downtown Orono, isn’t sure how the restaurant will be affected. Her grandfather, Pat Farnsworth, started the business 89 years ago.

“We are so crazy busy for hockey nights,” Cunningham said. “We get slammed. We have people wall to wall and orders are absolutely huge. UMaine and the opposing hockey teams both order from us.”

UMaine’s 11,400 students live in 19 dormitories and in off-campus apartments throughout Orono, population 10,914, and Old Town, population 7,594. Many who live off campus are year-round residents.

Cunningham said it’s hard to gauge the potential impact of UMaine’s actions. While Pat’s serves many students, Cunningham said she’s more concerned that fear of contracting COVID-19 will keep other regular customers at home. She plans to stay open regardless.

“We’re taking extra precautions so people can feel safe here,” Cunningham said. “We’re sanitizing everything regularly, wiping down menus, phones and cash registers with a bleach solution. We’re the type of business, we stay open and keep people fed when others can’t.”

Kennebec Journal reporter Sam Shepherd, Sun Journal reporter Donna Perry and Portland Press Herald intern Kate Rogers contributed to this report.

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