In this Feb. 24, 2021, file photo, a woman eats pizza outside David's restaurant in Portland's Monument Square. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Businesses said they need more money, relief for rents or mortgages and better insurance rates to recover from the pandemic this year, according to a survey from industry groups released Thursday.

The survey, conducted in December by the Maine Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives, the Maine Tourism Association and the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, aimed at gauging business sentiment heading into 2021. It was submitted to Maine legislators to help them shape policy and inform the allocation of $1 billion coming to the Mills administration in the latest stimulus bill passed by Congress.

There was good news in the survey of 500 business leaders from 35 industries. They were twice as likely to be optimistic than pessimistic about Maine’s business climate 12 months from now. Despite complaints from businesses about Gov. Janet Mills’ pandemic restrictions, more respondents felt positive than negative about communications from the state.

However, one-third of the businesses still were unsure about the future. Many of Maine’s small businesses have been hard hit by coronavirus restrictions and consumer hesitancy to go out and they comprise most of Maine’s enterprises that still need financial help to survive.

The biggest need over the next three to six months is cash, with half of respondents listing that as their top priority. Other major needs related to operating expenses included rent and mortgage relief, better insurance rates, more employees and lower utility rates.

The average business said it would need $65,000 on top of its expected revenue to guarantee it still will be open in 12 months. Businesses also need an average $6,000 reimbursement to cover building modifications needed to meet the state’s COVID-19 mandates for distancing. They also could use $4,000 to cover personal protective equipment.

Optimism for the upcoming tourism season has grown since the survey was taken in December, when 40 percent of respondents had a positive outlook, said Tony Cameron, CEO of the Maine Tourism Association. In a survey of only tourism businesses conducted last week, optimism had risen to 69 percent of respondents, he said.

In early March, Mills relaxed capacity and visitor restrictions ahead of this year’s tourism season. Last year, the pandemic restrictions shortened the season by several months, with some restaurants and hotels shut or working at low capacity. All New Englanders and people fully vaccinated from other areas can now visit the state without quarantine. On May 1, the state will move to a system under which all Americans can travel to Maine without quarantine unless cases are high in their states.

Survey respondents also cited policy changes that they would like to see to help them, including lower health care costs, effective state regulations and help with the availability of entry-level workers. They also would like to see policies improving high-speed internet and lowering personal income taxes.

More than half of the businesses said they had about the same number of employees as last year, which may reflect the success of relief programs including the federal Paycheck Protection Program, according to the survey. The program disbursed more than $3 billion worth of the forgivable loans to Maine small businesses over the past year, according to the office of Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who co-authored the loan provision.

However, a third of businesses still had fewer employees while nearly 10 percent had more than last year. Another third of businesses said they need more employees, but have found that fewer than half of the applicants they get have the qualifications needed.

More than a quarter of businesses will continue remote work and flexible scheduling. Six in 10 will keep new cleaning protocols initiated during the pandemic.

Of the survey respondents, 60 percent were from businesses with fewer than 10 employees, but the median business size was 5 employees. One out of 5 respondents had their key service area in York or Cumberland counties. The top three industries of the respondents were lodging and campgrounds, restaurants and bars and retail.