Trying to Keep Dreams Afloat in the Time of COVID
DOVER-FOXCROFT – The COVID-19 pandemic and associated safety guidelines have been hard on most businesses, to say nothing of new business owners. Mike and Elizabeth Loomis dreamed of someday owning a bed and breakfast during his years working in higher education and hers running their household and raising their three children. Last spring, the couple, full of high hopes and big plans, purchased the Freedom House Bed & Breakfast.
“We closed at the end of March and basically opened in April of last year,” said Mike Loomis. “It’s been just over a year. We’ve done a lot of redecorating, painted every room, and now we’re working on painting the exterior.” Taking on a property this size includes a lot of deferred maintenance, he said.
Because the business showed a loss in its first year, when COVID struck, the couple did not qualify for the Payment Protection Program. “A great lady at the bank advocated for us twice, and we were turned down twice,” Loomis said. “That didn’t help. And apparently, we don’t qualify for unemployment. We’ve never been able to get through to them, but the lady at the Guilford Bed & Breakfast did and they told her no.”
The couple tried for several weeks, calling the Maine Department of Labor each day at 8 a.m. to discover “the queue was already full for the day,” Loomis said. “We would hear from the state that they were adding more people to help out, but it didn’t matter.”
At first, business was as expected according to occupancy numbers provided by the previous owners. The business lost some income over Christmas because the couple travels to see her family over the holidays every other year.
“In late fall and early winter, people were calling to make reservations for this time of year,” Loomis recalled. “We thought, ‘Man, this is great! We are going to have a great summer!’ In January, they started calling to cancel. In March, the Governor shut things down. Under her plan, we could still take in essential workers, and we do get a number of nurses.”
The bed and breakfast was also allowed to take people in on an emergency basis, which came in handy after that destructive snowstorm in April downed trees and left one local couple with no electricity. “They stayed with us for about a week,” Loomis said.
That was about all the business the couple saw until the weekend of June 5, when President Donald J. Trump visited the region. “We were full this weekend,” Loomis said on June 8. Guests were mostly Mainers, but there were a couple of “Boston Globe” essential workers in the mix.
Freedom House, which features a mix of guest rooms and small apartments, also served as a refuge for the couple’s daughter for eight weeks. “She was here from Chicago,” Loomis said. “She got out just before they shut it down.” She has now returned to the Windy City to resume her wedding flower business.
Running a hospitality business doesn’t feel very hospitable these days, Loomis said. “It feels so weird to sit on the porch to welcome guests, and they put on their mask and I put on my mask. We’re not shaking hands, and we keep our distance. People understand and have been great about that.”
Unable to serve breakfast at this point in the shutdown, the business basically offers “just a room,” but it’s a very clean room, Loomis said, adding that guests always complimented the couple on the cleanliness of the rooms, but that has been stepped up even more during the pandemic, Loomis said.
Governor Mills’ announcement last week that folks from New Hampshire and Vermont are welcome, and that those from other areas may visit Maine with either a 14-day quarantine or a recent negative COVID test, may help a little…maybe. Loomis doubts that COVID-19 tests will be readily available to those without symptoms in other states, as they have not been available here.
“At this point, I don’t think we have any other reservations for the rest of this month,” Loomis said. “Maybe if things open up, the phone will start ringing, but we’re pretty much counting this year as a loss. We will have to live on our savings, and we’re looking for part-time jobs.”
Elizabeth is partway through the process to become a U.S. Census taker, he said. “And I’m open. I used to work in higher education, so that’s another crazy business right now, but I’ve also worked in retail. Right now, I’m just busy painting the house and that keeps me out of trouble. It’s not small! My son is here from college helping me.
“We know it’s going to be a terrible year,” he continued, recalling a recent trip to Bar Harbor. “Acadia just opened up, and some of the businesses, but some of them, you could tell they’re just done. They’ve decided they can’t make it.”
But Loomis said they understand why Governor Mills is moving slowly, and that she is basing reopening on “the facts, the science. We have to be careful and do the best we can, but I think a lot of people are going out of business because of this.”For now, Loomis said, they are “putzing along, trying to stay busy doing projects for the business. Until there’s a vaccine and people have more confidence that this thing is under control, I just don’t think they will be doing travel as much,” he said. “I have this nagging feeling that 2020, as a year to make money, is gone. It’s just not going to happen for hospitality. We are looking forward to 2021.”