Meredith Strang Burgess never expected to get a personal email from her bank at 9:35 p.m. on a Sunday, but she was excited when it dropped in her inbox.

The message was from her loan officer at People’s United Bank, informing her that Burgess Advertising & Marketing in Falmouth had been approved for a loan under the federal Paycheck Protection Program, which began accepting applications from small businesses across the country Friday.

That gave Strang Burgess hope she’ll have enough money two weeks from now to pay her seven employees. But details on her loan approval process remained to be completed on Monday, so the answer was uncertain.

“The questions are, “Now what?’ and ‘How long?'” she said.

The term “banker’s hours” has taken on a new meaning during the coronavirus pandemic, as lenders step up to help direct a flood of business requests through the U.S. Small Business Administration’s application pipeline. Because the final SBA forms only reached banks on Friday, many lenders worked through the weekend to help their customers apply.

The lending team at Bangor Savings Bank, for instance, worked from 7 a.m. on Saturday to 2 a.m. on Sunday processing loans, according to Kate Rush, the bank’s community relations director. By Monday afternoon, the bank had received 1,300 applications and had tallied approvals worth $131 million.

Statewide, applications that have been successfully submitted usually are coming back from the SBA the same day, said Chris Pinkham, president of the Maine Bankers Association. Heavy online traffic on Monday caused the SBA portal to bog down occasionally, Pinkham said, and lenders are still waiting for a couple of additional tools to complete loans, including actual closing documents required by the agency. That could account for the delay in the next step for early applicants, such as Burgess Advertising.

Strang Burgess owns one of the first small businesses in Maine to have a loan approved under the new program.

She had anticipated the need to be ready. She and her bookkeeper had spent last week preparing the company’s financial documents to go as soon as her bank had the correct online information. The federal loan will cover payroll expenses through June 30, which adds up to more than $100,000 at the ad agency.

“We pushed ‘send’ at 4 p.m. on Friday afternoon,” she said.

HALF BILLION AND COUNTING

For all Maine lending institutions as of Sunday afternoon, more than 1,200 loans had been approved, valued at roughly $350 million, according to the SBA, with the average loan size being $295,000. In an email to the Maine Bankers Association Sunday night, the SBA noted that lenders had funded more loans under the agency’s popular 7(a) loan guarantee program over the previous three days than in the past four  years combined.

As of 4 p.m. on Monday, 1,816 Maine employers had been approved for $510.9 million in loans, according to the office of Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.

“These forgivable loans will help keep paychecks coming for the tens of thousands of Mainers who work at a small business,” Collins said in a statement.

The Paycheck Protection Program is one of the cornerstones of the federal response to helping businesses weather the coronavirus pandemic. It is dispersing forgivable loans, with total of $349 billion earmarked for small businesses – defined as those having fewer than 500 employees. The goal is to provide funds to pay up to eight weeks of payroll costs, including benefits. The money also may be used to pay interest on mortgages, rent and utilities.

The pace of loan processing and approval was accelerating Monday, as both lenders and business owners became more familiar with the requirements of an unprecedented program that was still being refined only days ago.

Collins said she spoke with several lenders over the weekend and came away with the impression that community banks seemed to be more nimble in responding than larger institutions, and that lenders with less experience processing SBA loans faced a steeper learning curve. She said she expected those glitches to be smoothed out in the days ahead.

Collins was among four senators who co-authored the Keeping American Workers Paid and Employed Act included in the bipartisan, $2.2 trillion CARES Act relief package that passed the Senate 96-0 on March 25.

Collins, who served as the SBA’s regional director in Boston in the early 1990s, said her office is asking the agency for daily tallies and is planning to begin posting them on her website soon.

Collins also voiced a concern shared by many small business owners – that the money will run out before the need is met. In Washington, politicians have begun talking about whether more money will be required on top of the record-setting $2.2 trillion stimulus fund to keep the economy from sinking into a depression.

“We’re having informal discussions on whether there’s a need for a fourth bill and what it might contain,” Collins told the Portland Press Herald.

Among the options, she said, is an extension of the Paycheck Protection Program, as well as a long-delayed and promised investment in the nation’s infrastructure. Any such investment should expand beyond roads and bridges, she said, to include better high-speed internet connections in rural areas. That deficiency has been highlighted by the need and desire to work at home during the pandemic, she noted.

Although Republican leadership in Congress has initially balked at further spending at this time, Collins said she would be open to the idea if the money rescues the nation’s economy. She noted that 90 percent of employees in Maine work for small businesses, well above the national average of 50 percent.

SOME STRUGGLE WITH PROCESS

For some small businesses seeking federal assistance, the process has not gone smoothly.

Kevin Mackell’s 10-year-old massage therapy and sports rehabilitation business, Athlete’s Touch in Portland, was already under stress. Worried about physical contact, Mackell had to shut down a month ago. That put 12 people out of work.

Mackell’s workers are independent contractors and can apply for unemployment benefits, but the business needs to keep paying rent and utilities. So he attempted on Friday to apply for a loan through Bank of America, where he has had a business credit card for 10 years. Then he found out he was ineligible because he didn’t have a lending history with the bank.

“Like a lot of small businesses in America, I don’t want to take out any loans, if possible,” he said.

Similar situations were shared nationally on social media by scores of Bank of America customers, and on Saturday, the lender changed its policy. Mackell applied on Saturday, and on Sunday he received word that his application had been received.

“And now we wait,” he said. “I’m hopeful this will move along.”

Mackell also applied a week ago for one of the SBA’s Economic Injury Disaster Loans, an existing program for emergency funding. As of Monday, he hadn’t heard back.

Small businesses and sole proprietorships, including nonprofit organizations, veterans organizations and tribal businesses, were allowed to start filing applications last Friday.

Starting this Friday, independent contractors and self-employed individuals can apply. Restaurants and hotels are also eligible to apply if each of their locations has fewer than 500 employees. Small businesses are being encouraged to apply as soon as possible because there is a funding availability cap.

Small-business owners can apply for loans through any existing SBA lender or through any federally insured depository institution, federally insured credit union or participating Farm Credit System institution. All loans carry the same terms regardless of lender or borrower.

Loans will be fully forgiven if employees are kept on a business’s payroll or rehired quickly at the same salary level. Forgiveness will be reduced if a business’s headcount declines or if salaries and wages are decreased. At least 75 percent of the forgiven amount must have been used to cover payroll expenses.

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