BATH — Sagadahock Real Estate Association in Bath is offering relief on April rent payments to tenants struggling to make ends meet as coronavirus pandemic hits their income or shutters them outright.

“Each of us is affected differently by the restrictions and guidelines which we all should abide by and strictly follow for the benefit of all,” wrote John Morse IV, whose family owns Sagadahock Real Estate Association, in a letter to tenants sent earlier this month. “As SREA’s part, we will be allowing individual variable rent reductions starting in April.”

Morse said each tenant is responsible for communicating how much they’re able to earn with coronavirus restrictions in place. If a business was forced to close and is conducting no business, their April rent will be zero. If businesses are operating on a limited basis, Morse said he will adjust their rent appropriately.

“If you’ve had to close your store, or close it part-time, we would share the burden with you by cutting your rent,” said Morse. “Nobody knows what’s going to happen or how long this will go on for, so we didn’t want to give people another reason to worry.”

Morse said he hopes the financial relief helps employers stay in business and prevents them from laying off employees.

According to data from the Maine Department of Labor, nearly 21,500 Mainers filed for unemployment benefits between March 8 and March 15, by far the highest weekly total on record.

The weekly number of new claims is nearly quadruple that of the first week in January 2009, in the depths of the Great Recession, when about 5,600 Mainers filed for unemployment benefits, the Portland Press Herald reported.

Morse said the Association, which owns much of downtown Bath, is in a comfortable place financially, which allows him to help stores and restaurants who need the financial relief.

The Association initially owned 19 properties, 18 of which were in downtown Bath. Within the past two years, the company has sold 14 of those properties. The company now owns five properties, four of which are in downtown Bath.

As of Sunday, officials from the Maine Center Control and Prevention confirmed 253 cases of coronavirus in Maine. The CDC also announced Maine’s first three deaths from the virus.

The CDC says the disease caused by a coronavirus, COVID-19, is spread through person-to-person contact. Public health officials continue to urge everyone to practice good hygiene – washing hands with soap for at least 20 seconds – as well as keeping a 6-foot buffer between others, avoiding large gatherings and staying home as much as possible.

To further reduce the risk of the virus from spreading, Gov. Janet Mills issued an executive order last week that forced all nonessential public-facing businesses to close to the public through April 8.

“While I think reading is essential, I understand the reasoning behind Governor Mills’ order,” said Julie Shea, owner of the Mustard Seed Bookstore on Front Street, which was forced to close Friday.

Shea said online sales have helped the business stay afloat, but she had to lay off two employees. She said she plans to accept Morse’s offer in order to further protect her business, especially during a crucial time for the store.

“Spring is when you get your inventory for the summer, and to have to pay for that is very hard right now,” said Shea. “We’re getting a small amount of income, but nothing like before … about 50% lower than this time last year.”

Down the street, Mike Fear, owner of Now You’re Cooking, said the store has switched to curbside pickup. He said he has seen a slight drop in sales since changing the business model but considers himself lucky.

“There are a lot of people who can’t do any business, so we’re fortunate we can keep muddling along,” he said.

Fear said he doesn’t plan on accepting Morse’s reduced rent offer. He wants to pay rent in full because “the Morses deserve that.”

“The Morse family has always been committed to Bath, not just their tenants, but the entire community,” said Fear. “His offer doesn’t surprise me at all.”

Earlier this month the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development authorized the Federal Housing Administration to put an immediate suspension on foreclosures and evictions for the next two months for single-family homeowners unable to pay their mortgages. Homeowners with loans backed by two government-controlled companies, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, will also be granted foreclosure relief, according to the Federal Housing Finance Agency.

Locally, Bath Savings Institute is deferring payments on both consumer and business loans, according to Glenn Hutchinson, President of Bath Savings. Within the last week, he said the bank has received deferment requests from both individuals who lost their job and businesses who were forced to close their doors.

“We’re here for our customers through good times and bad and unfortunately it’s a troubling time for everyone,” said Hutchinson. “Like everybody else, we’re taking things day-by-day.”

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