Downtown Westbrook has been void of foot traffic this week as businesses begin to close their doors. Chance Viles / American Journal

WESTBROOK — Small businesses in Westbrook and Gorham are trying to adapt to the financial impact of the coronavirus or face shutting their doors.

Restaurants especially have taken a hit after the state prohibited dine-in services as part of its measures to stem the spread of the virus. Federal emergency loans are available, but business owners are cautious about taking on debt without knowing when they will be able to reopen.

Meanwhile, Westbrook and Gorham officials are working on ways to provide some relief to their businesses.

Co-owner Sarem Al-Shawk closed Istanbul Restaurant and Bakery in Westbrook this week, after first attempting to just provide takeout service. File photo

Worst case scenario is we have to shut down,” said Sareem Al-Shawk, co-owner of Istanbul Restaurant and Bakery, which opened on Main Street in Westbrook in October. “We are just waiting, but if it’s a year, who can afford to pay rent for a new business or pay back a loan?”

Al-Shawk is among the local owners who have temporarily shuttered their restaurants. Sebago Brewery in Gorham and Gorham House of Pizza also have shut down and laid-off employees.

Business slowed with the first news of the virus and had gotten “tougher and tougher” ever since, Al-Shawk said.  

“It’s tough for everyone right now. We were initially open for takeout, but we can’t risk getting our customers or employees sick,” he said.

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.

It’s a catch-22 — if you’re open it’s an unknown whether you will get business or not,” said Ed Symbol, owner of Full Court Press, a printing company in Westbrook. “If it’s not busy, you cost yourself money. It’s a tough situation and (small business owners) are riding a fine line.”

Restaurants that have remained open have limited themselves to takeout and curbside pick-up. A list on Westbrook’s website and the “Gorham Business Support,” Facebook page aim to keep that information readily available. Chance Viles / American Journal

While Symbol’s shop doesn’t rely on people gathering and direct service, he worries about his business neighbors’ financial health and, also, how their closure may affect the community as a whole.

“Those businesses have done a lot in the community, and that may be more notable when they can’t do what they’ve done before. They sponsor recreation leagues, donate to 5Ks, they support a lot of things, and time will tell how that is affected,” he said.

Full Court Press is offering free banners to local eateries that are open to help them get attention.

It’s really a minor gesture, but hopefully they can utilize it and hopefully people drive by, see it, and know it’s open,” Symbol said.

Other owners are beginning to shift business models. Bloom Consignment in downtown Westbrook is transitioning all of its clothing items to online storefronts. In Gorham, Dance Studio of Maine, has rolled out online courses in lieu of the 90 classes per week on average it has been holding on site, according to owner Trish Moulton.

“I needed to figure out how to have all the classes continue at the same time, while training our 11 or so instructors and getting our customers on board in a short amount of time,” Moulton said.

To help their small businesses, Westbrook and Gorham are making efforts to support them.

In Westbrook, Economic Development Director Dan Stevenson has premiered a contest where residents can send in $100 worth of receipts from local eateries to enter a raffle for a $100 gift card to another local spot.

“We hope to promote our local businesses, and if people are ordering food, this may give them incentive to choose a smaller business in town,” Stevenson said.

Westbrook, along with nine other Maine downtown communities in the national Main Street America Program, also has sent a series of recommendations to Gov. Janet Mills and the Maine Congressional Delegation aiming to support small downtown businesses.

The recommendations include taking measures for financial relief, technical assistance and the easing of some regulations to mitigate the impact of the coronavirus outbreak.

In Gorham, Economic Development Director Kevin Jensen created the Facebook group Gorham Business Support, where businesses can post their hours and “what is available in real time.”

That’s just a start, Jensen said, because more help will be needed.

“There are huge stimulus packages at Congress right now. We are really trying to see how that goes, to further know what resources we can make available,” Jensen said.

At Full Court Press, Symbol wants people to remember small business neighbors.

“I hope people continue supporting the local guy when this is over,” he said. 

Istanbul Restaurant and Bakery has closed its doors out of concerns for both customer and employee health. Chance Viles / American Journal

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