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Updated: December 10, 2020

HospitalityMaine chief urges U.S. lawmakers to save struggling restaurant sector

With hundreds of Maine restaurants forced out of business during the pandemic and many others hanging on by a thread, the leader of industry group HospitalityMaine says that more federal relief is urgently needed.

“We are pushing hard for the $908 billion coronavirus stimulus bill championed by U.S. Sens.[Susan] Collins and [Angus] King, who are both members of the bipartisan Problem Solvers' Caucus," HospitalityMaine President and CEO Steve Hewins told Mainebiz on Wednesday.

“This federal relief bill is needed before Congress recesses for the holidays, but we only consider this a down payment on a larger bill needed when they reconvene in 2021," he said.

The call for aid comes on top of the ongoing Maine Economic Recovery Grant Program, with the hospitality sector accounting for the highest percentage of grants in two rounds, a spokeswoman from the Department of Economic and Community Development told Mainebiz.

Gov. Janet Mills also on Nov. 30 unveiled a $40 million grant program to support Maine's tourism, hospitality and retail small businesses, for which grant applications are are currently being reviewed, with notifications set to go out early next week to those who qualified, the spokeswoman said.

"All of that being said," she added, "we understand the challenges that continue to face the industry and know that these programs provided some relief, but it is not enough. We continue to look for creative solutions to support this very important sector."

Closures nationwide and in Maine

The search for more aid comes after a survey of HospitalityMaine members that fed into a larger report by the National Restaurant Association. It showed a grim picture of the sector nationwide, concluding that more than 500,000 restaurant nationwide are in an "economic free fall," with 10,000 closures in the last three months.

The report also said that 58% of chain and independent full-service operators expect continued furloughs and layoffs for at least the next three months. 

"In short, the restaurant industry simply cannot wait for relief any longer," Sean Kennedy, the association's executive vice president for the public affairs, in a letter to Congressional leadership reporting the findings.

Hewins noted that the situation is equally dire in Maine, as shown in the survey of HospitalityMaine members for the nationwide report.

The survey was conducted from Nov. 17-30, overlapping with an executive order by Mills that imposed a 9 p.m. closing time on Maine restaurants. The order was recently extended and remains in effect through Sunday, Jan. 3.

Among HospitalityMaine members that responded to the survey, 97% said they expect their sales to deteriorate over the next three months, 74% have seen higher labor costs since the start of the pandemic and 73% expect further layoffs.

Even more striking, a third of respondents said they expect to be out of business in six months without additional federal aid.

“This survey of HospitalityMaine members clearly shows the severity of the situation restaurants are facing, and why the responses are so heartbreaking," Hewins told Mainebiz.

He added that "the hurdles appear endless with no more outdoor dining, mandatory statewide kitchen closures at 9 p.m., and the long winter looming."

'Breaking point for hundreds'

In Portland, named the 2018 "Restaurant City of the Year" by foodie magazine Bon Appetit, restaurants that have closed permanently during pandemic include Vinland, the critically acclaimed Drifters Wife and Flood's. A host of other eateries are hustling to get by with takeout and outdoor service.

Even if there is another lifeline soon from Washington, Hewins laments the fact it will be too late for some. "The breaking point," he said, "has already come for hundreds of Maine restaurants that did not participate in this survey because they have already shuttered."

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