Congress Street was quiet during lunchtime Monday as businesses across the city have closed temporarily because of the coronavirus. Michael Kelley / The Forecaster

PORTLAND — Not knowing when, or in some cases even if, they will be able to reopen has Portland’s small business owners  on edge.

Businesses have come to each other’s aid in light of being forced to close or alter their services to combat the spread of coronavirus, and special federal loans are available to them, but the uncertainty is stressful and many are reluctant to take on more debt at this time.

Kristen Moustrouphis, owner of Crossfit Beacon on Marginal Way, said a loan sounds great “but to take on extra debt now” is terrifying. As it is, Moustrouphis said, she has stopped paying herself a salary “to protect the cash on hand, because I don’t know how long this will impact us all.”

Crossfit Beacon holds a class outdoors at Fox Field in Portland March 18. The class was part of its Beacon Outside the Box program, a effort to connect with members while Crossfit Beacon’s facility on Marginal Way is closed due to the threat of the spread of the coronavirus. Shawn Patrick Ouellette / Portland Press Herald

Maine was one of the first states in the country to be approved for U.S. Small Business Administration Economic Injury Disaster loans of up to $2 million to help its 145,000 small businesses pay for things like fixed debts, payroll, accounts payable and other bills that can’t be paid because of the pandemic’s impact.

Moustrouphis and others in the local business community see the 3.75% interest for small business and 2.75% interest for non-profits as cost prohibitive.

Congresswoman Chellie Pingree has introduced legislation that would make the loans available with no interest rate.

The legislation would also provide up to $15,000 in immediate grants for small businesses that apply for an Economic Injury Disaster Loan, and it would allow the SBA to defer payments on existing federal loans.

No-interest loans would ease some of the concerns that Mary Scott, the executive director of Portland Buy Local, has heard from business owners.

“I’ve been hearing a lot of folks disappointed by the interest rate” attached to the Economic Injury Disaster loans, Scott said.

“They are reluctant to take on more loans at a time when they are not taking in any income. Small businesses operate on such slim margins as it is,” she said. “Businesses are glad that something is available, but wish the interest rate was as close to zero as possible.”

The Finance Authority of Maine is also offering some financial assistance for those impacted. Individuals can apply for a loan up to $5,000 through  the COVID-19 Relief Consumer Loan Program. Businesses can qualify for a COVID-19 Relief Interim SBA Finance Loan of up to $100,000 or a COVID-19 Relief Business Direct Loan Program of up to $50,000. Those are also not interest-free.

Since Moustrouphis closed her fitness center March 15 she has been trying to connect with its members through online workouts or pop-up workout sessions outdoors.

“We are a gym of 200 people. Our customers are more like a family than strangers walking through the door,” Moustrouphis said. “Out business model has long been to build a community that supports each other. We are having to make some tough decisions, but are trying to be there for our customers more than ever. It is what people need right now – to move, stay sane and connect with others.”

Moustrouphis knows she is not alone in worrying about what the future holds for her business.

“We are all terrified about the next step because if we don’t make the right choice, we may not reopen,” she said.

Charting that next step, Scott said is the struggle.

“The businesses who are open are working hard to stay open while keeping the health of the community and their employees in mind,” Scott said.

Venues like Portland House of Music and Portland Stage Company have closed their doors and are anxious to the day when they can open them back up to the public again. Michael Kelley / The Forecaster

Ken Bell, owner of Portland House of Music on Temple Street, is unsure what the future holds for his concert venue, but said he remains hopeful it will reopen to the  soon.

“As a social gathering place, we were one of the first to be impacted by this, as we were one of the first to close,” he said. “Our goal now is to get through this as well as help our staff get through this.  With no end in sight and only speculation, even from the experts, we are just cutting all spending and looking for creative ways to drive revenue.”

Doane Dorchester, general manager of Portland Stage Company, said her organization is also in limbo. The theater on March 13 decided to end the run of “Native Gardens” two weeks early and to not hold live performances again until mid-April at the earliest.

“So much of what we do is create and produce artistic and educational content with the goal of it being seen live, we’re still trying to sort out how to continue to create without that live audience component,” Dorchester said.

The theater was able to film a performance of “Native Gardens” and hopes to stream it on the Portland Stage website soon. It is still discussing what to do if the theater cannot open again this season, which was scheduled to conclude in late May after performances of ‘The Children” by Lucy Kirkwood and “Sabina” by Willy Holtzman.

As of late last week staff are still employed, but if the theater remains closed to the public, that may not last for much longer, Dorchester said.

“If we have to close for the season and lay people off, I’m not sure that they’re prepared for that financially,” she said. “But, with no revenue coming in and people asking for refunds, I’m not sure how long we can keep employing people, either.”

She said she has seen many businesses coming together to help each other out during this uncertain time.

“One way or another we will all get through this, somehow, and I’m sure we’ll be stronger for it in the end.  Right now it’s the uncertainty that has everyone on edge,” Dorchester said.

Trying to run a business and recognize the needs of employees is also something Sur Lie owner Krista Cole has struggled with in light of a March 18 order by Gov. Janet Mills prohibiting public gatherings of more than 10 people until further notice and dine-in at restaurants through at least March 31.

Sur-Lie, a tapas restaurant on Free Street, is open but only for take-out or delivery after fears of the spread of the coronavirus caused Gov. Janet Mills to prohibit dine-in eating until at least the end of the month. Michael Kelley / The Forecaster

Sur Lie, a tapas restaurant and cocktail/wine bar on Free Street, is among the downtown restaurants that are continuing to operate for takeout or delivery only.

The prohibition on dine-in eating, Cole said, has “impacted our business significantly.”

“We’ve cut our overhead down as much as possible.  We aren’t ordering anything or bringing in any new product,” she said. “The takeout menu was built around what we have in-house already and what needs to get used so that we aren’t wasting food.”
Like at many other restaurants across the city, staff at the restaurant have been let go, but the hope is to hire some back if takeout and delivery sales pick up enough.
“For most of us, we aren’t worrying about ourselves first,” she said. “We are worried about the repercussions this is going to have on the teams of people we love.”
Cole said she wouldn’t have been able to transition to takeout and delivery “without an amazing group of restaurant owners, general managers and chefs who got together last week to first and foremost support each other and secondly to identify ahead of time things that we were going to need.”

Casey Gilbert, director of the Portland Downtown promotional group, said she has talked to many business owners, property owners, non-profits and cultural and arts organization who are all trying to “do everything they can to help their employees.”

“There is so much need right now and it is hard to tell what the long-term impacts will be,” Gilbert said. “In the short-term, I see resilience and problem solving. I also see compassion, sadness and hope. As a community, we are strong and I have no doubt that local and state governments are doing everything they can to provide help to businesses and individuals who are trying to navigate their immediate concerns around personal health and livelihood.”

Last week Scott and Gilbert participated in a conference call with representatives of Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce, Greater Portland Council of Governments, the city of Portland, Institute for Family-Owned Business and Visit Portland Maine to figure out a collective approach to take. That work, they said, needs to continue.

“We need to all be putting our heads together to find ways to best support our local businesses,” Scott said.

For a list of resources for businesses and how they can respond to the coronavirus, visit Portland Buy Local’s resource page,  maine.gov/decd/home or uschamber.com/coronavirus.