Small businesses are the foundation of Maine’s communities and economy. Yet, many have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, and face an uphill battle in their recovery.
Mainers for Working Families contacted local small business owners across Maine to talk about what they’ve done to keep their businesses running and their communities safe, and discuss what is still needed to help them through the winter months.
Emily Seymour and her husband Benjamin Dorr have owned and run Curator Consignment in Rockland since May of 2016. What began as a men’s consignment store has expanded to carry women’s clothing and accessories, as well.
Curator is open for ten months a year, and relies on Maine’s tourist season for heavy foot traffic. When the pandemic first hit Maine in early March, Curator was already closed, and Emily and Ben chose to keep it that way while they figured out the next steps for their business.
In early June, they opened the store back up, with limited capacity.
“We decided to open by appointment, because we wanted to feel a bit more in control of who we let inside... we would ask people if they were following CDC testing, quarantine or exempt regulations,” said Emily. “It felt like we were able to have a slightly better idea of who was coming to the shop instead of just opening the door.”
Emily and Ben continued their by-appointment-only structure until the end of the summer. Customers can now enter without an appointment. Masks are required, and they only allow eight customers in at one time.
They sanitize all surfaces frequently, and provide hand sanitizer for all of their customers. They’ve asked customers to not try on any clothes unless they’re relatively certain they would like to buy it, and they are required to wear masks in the dressing rooms as well.
In the earlier months of reopening Curator, Emily and Ben kept their staff at home, and managed the store themselves.
“I didn't want to put staff at risk of getting the virus when I barely felt comfortable in the beginning, let alone putting someone else in that position and potentially having them catch it in my business,” said Emily.
Now, they have two members of their staff come in on occasion to help cover some of the shifts. They want to ensure that most of their staff is still eligible for unemployment benefits, since the store is open for limited hours.
But Emily knows that so many other small businesses and their staff have been forced to shoulder the financial and health burden of this crisis.
“We’re in the financial position to be able to cut our hours back and take a loss this year. I felt so so bad that we all had to make [decisions] as small business owners, do you open to pay your rent and your staff and risk all of them, or do you have some level of control and make so much less?”
The pandemic has proved to be an ever-changing situation for business owners, and Emily hopes that more updates will be sent to small businesses as guidelines and regulations change.
“I think… even just an official Maine email that comes out that’s says, ‘the regulations have changed, now you can have this many people and now you can do this.’”
Emily and Ben have found Gov. Mills’s multiple grant programs have been a real help to small businesses, especially since federal aid hasn’t been forthcoming.
“We just applied for the latest grant from Maine. I do think that money is just so important because… it’s not coming from the federal level right now, and I really appreciate that Maine opened it up on the state level for grant funding,” said Emily.
“Nobody in the world knows what is going to happen, and it’s just very nice to have like grant opportunities available, to know that...will help us get through the winter with a bit of certainty.”
Since our conversation with Emily, Curator has received the grant money, which will help keep their business afloat during the winter months.
With so many small businesses looking ahead, Emily believes that they should be proud of the way they have kept their communities and staffs safe.
“To every small business that is trying their hardest to keep everybody working for and supporting them safe, this isn’t going to last forever, and they should be proud of the work that they're doing.”