A sign announces the reopening of the Hot Spot Diner in Wiscasset in this May 18, 2020, file photo. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty | AP

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A $16,000 food bill finally forced restaurateur Wendyll Caisse to throw in the towel on her Buck’s Naked BBQ restaurant in Windham.

The rustic restaurant in Cumberland County had stocked up on brisket and other foods for what it expected to be a June 1 opening for indoor dining. But five days before, Gov. Janet Mills postponed reopenings of restaurant dining rooms in three counties, including Cumberland.

“Yesterday I went to that restaurant and filled up the dumpster,” Caisse told the Legislature’s Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee on Friday. “It breaks my heart. I’ve been there for 10 years, and we were very profitable.”

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Caisse was one of a dozen business people who detailed their struggles to the committee and made recommendations to help businesses survive and even thrive after the pandemic. Among the ideas: more loans, grants and tax breaks. Many said they had taken advantage of federal and state government aid programs, but that the loss of business during the pandemic had been so severe they feared for their long-term survival.

The committee held the hearings to help inform its response to businesses harmed by the pandemic and the state’s economic growth plans.

Caisse told the committee the math on her balance sheet no longer added up for her business’ Windham location. Buck’s Naked BBQ also has a Freeport location under different ownership that will remain open.

The Windham restaurant did $1.3 million in sales last year, and since the pandemic restrictions went into place, curbside-only sales were $4,000 per week. Caisse said she only has room for two tables on an outside balcony, and expected to fit only half the normal number of tables indoors because of state distancing mandates aimed at preventing the spread of the coronavirus.

Last June, her business made a tidy $10,000 profit. This year, with fewer tables inside and expenses for added safety precautions, she expected to lose $5,400. Despite lower sales, she still had to pay overhead, including the $8,823 for utilities the past two months. Now, she’s left to pay $56,000 just to close the restaurant.

“My suggestion is to support businesses with grant funding that has to go directly to operations, and without the restrictions of the PPP,” she said, referring to the federal Paycheck Protection Program, which required a certain amount to be spent on payroll so the loan could be forgiven.

Pierre Janelle, a third-generation innkeeper at the Edgewater Motor Inn in Old Orchard Beach, said he has had to refund about one-third of the $160,000 in deposits he received in February and March. He had not had to take on any debt until this year. Now, he is $250,000 in debt and may incur another $100,000 until pandemic restrictions are lifted.

The state still has a 14-day quarantine in effect for out-of-state visitors to Maine, although the state expects to announce an alternative plan early next week, Department of Economic and Community Development Commissioner Heather Johnson told the committee.

Janelle said he worries that even after he is allowed to reopen fully, the impact of the pandemic will continue to suppress demand for rooms by up to 15 percent into next year. He expects to suspend capital improvements for the next three years.

“I want a state grant program to help soften the blow of the amount of money we have to take on as debt now,” he said.

South Thomaston lobsterman Robert Baines said the pandemic hasn’t had much of an effect on the fishery so far, but that’s about to change in a couple weeks, when the season begins in earnest.

He said dealers told him prices would drop to $2.50 or less per pound, half of last season’s average price.

“If our prices are half to less than half, we’re out of business,” said Baines, who is on the board of the Spruce Head Fishermen’s Co-op. “Our harvest goes primarily to restaurants, cruise lines and food service, which all are doing very poorly.”

He said half of gross sales for lobstermen go toward expenses, so the low prices will eat up any profit. Prices already are soft. Lobsters that normally would fetch $6 per pound wholesale are now bringing in $4 per pound, and it’s a challenge to sell them even at that price, he said.

Baines suggested the committee consider property tax credits to help the industry. Unless the market changes miraculously, he said, the lobster industry is going to be in dire trouble come summer.

“Guys on the wharf keep asking me, ‘What are we going to do?’” he said. “My answer is, ‘I don’t know.’”

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