Though the evening newscasts in late January and February made reference to a new virus on the other side of the world and then later in Italy, the suddenness of its presence here in the U.S. became our own “Beware the Ides of March” nightmare.

Closed until further notice signs, a common sight as the stay-at-home mandate continues in Maine. Dan King photo

In early March, the U.S. was in its tightest non-wartime employment economy in the last 50 years. Though we were still mired in a Maine winter, you could sense the growing optimism with daily newspaper stories of expanding businesses, newly opening restaurants, and an anticipated record number of cruise ships that would be tying up this summer in Portland and Bar Harbor.

Then the virus reared its ugly head and reality hit home. Many have described it as “like having the economic rug suddenly pulled out from under you.”

Now, just three weeks later, we’re seeing millions and still growing numbers of Americans out of work, nine out of 10 Americans are “sheltering in place,” and there’s wide-spread and deep uncertainty about if, how, or when an economic recovery could begin.

Maine’s Gov. Janet Mills has ordered all non-essential businesses closed and here in southern Maine, evidence of our quickly falling off the economic cliff is all round us.

Compared to this time last year, passenger traffic at Portland’s Jetport has fallen by 90 percent and traffic on the Maine Turnpike has dropped by 50 to 80 percent on any given day. On our local streets and at the stoplights, traffic is markedly reduced and eerily muffled.

It’s been no surprise to visitors that Vacationland is on our license plates. Usually, we can expect the first perceptible signs of a new tourism season after mid-April, but in March, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York plates began appearing at the houses at the beach and in our neighborhoods. At least two out-of-state families are now sheltering in our Landing neighborhood.

Fear of the virus has driven them to Maine, a state which has a long history as a safe place. Following 9/11, many New York and northern New Jersey residents drove north seeking solace. Many have become our neighbors and full-fledged Mainers, not by birth but by choice.

This history will repeat itself, I believe, but now in greater numbers and during this next year, our towns and realtors will need to prepare for this new swell of inbound transplants looking for a new and safer life here in Maine. These new house hunters will not only ask about school ratings, property tax assessments, and hospital locations, but also demand the local, county, and state virus stats for 2020.

During these early weeks of this pandemic, Portland has become the virus hot spot in Maine. By mandate, we’re no longer allowed to make the 30-minute drive north to the city, but we cheer the heroic fight of their health care workers and mourn the growing number of virus deaths. During this 2020 spring, borrowing from JFK, “We are all Portlanders.”

This week we’ll see our own Snow Birds swooping in after wintering in the south. We assume that most of them will have taken wide detours around New York City and Boston. Some are returning from states which hadn’t yet enacted the shelter in place or social distancing protocols. We look forward to their return and seeing more lights come on in our neighborhoods, but they’ve got to get with the program and follow Gov. Mills’ mandate that they self-quarantine in place for 14 days or more. We believe that they’re good neighbors and will do so.

Maine is not a wealthy state, so this crisis will hit us even harder. We do know though that our grayness, the over-65 age of our population, leads the nation. Seniors, as proven in Italy and New York City, will be the prime targets of this virus because of the decline in their immunity defenses and other underlying health conditions.

Though our seniors are shored up by Social Security and some pensions, their quality of life, as it has for many others in this country, will be threatened by the chaos in the stock markets and now almost zero interest rates on their savings.

Because of the nursing home disasters in the state of Washington and New York City, the state, when this fight is won, must convene a Blue Ribbon Commission to review the safety standards and medical protocols at Maine’s nursing homes and assisted living facilities.

Maine also leads the nation in the per capita percentage of its workers who must work two or more jobs just to make ends meet. A good portion of Maine’s hourly workers live paycheck to paycheck.

By mid-March, Maine consumers out of fear and on their own began to withdraw into self-isolation and the governor, hoping to flatten the virus’s peak, ordered the closure of all non-essential businesses. For our hourly workers, paycheck to paycheck, now became a question of survival when the April 1 rent checks or mortgage payments came due and couldn’t be paid.

Not that long ago, Maine at its state borders announced, “We’re Open for Business.” Now, on every main street and in our cities, “Closed for the Duration” signs now hang in business windows throughout our state.

Dine-in restaurants, bars, gyms, barber shops, furniture stores, shopping malls, retail stores, yoga studios, mattress stores, casinos, auto dealerships, hair salons, theaters — movie and stage, hotels, inns, B & Bs, campgrounds, RV parks, and short-term rentals are now shuttered and locked. Their former employees are now filing en-masse for unemployment relief.

Our fisheries and small farmers are limping along, unsure when the restaurants will open again or if there’ll be a tourist season this year.

Business owners have been caught at the worst possible time of the year, the off-season, when the 2019 season funds are gone and you traditionally have to seek bank lines of credit, bridge loans, so you can open in hopeful anticipation for the coming season.

All the economic surveys tell us that the overwhelming percentage of Maine businesses is sole proprietorships or small often family-run operations with very tight profit margins. At times like this, they often fall through the cracks in favor of the big guys, for instance in 2008-09 when massive funds went to the auto companies and the “Too Big to Fail” banks and large investment houses.

When the rules and regulations are formulated for this just passed $2.2 trillion 2020 Stimulus Bill, the Cares Act, will a small state like Maine with its workers, small business owners, large senior population, health care heroes, financially-strapped hospitals, and towns be able to access this desperately needed relief?

Tom Murphy is a former teacher and state representative. He is a Kennebunk Landing resident and can be reached at [email protected]

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