Thousands of Maine small businesses have been approved for hundreds of millions of dollars in fresh Paycheck Protection Program loans under a revamped version of the program that some credit with preserving millions of U.S. jobs and preventing economic catastrophe last year.

But the scale of lending is far smaller this time around, partly because of stricter application requirements, other funding options and the recovery of some industries from last year’s economic shock, reducing their need for more government help.

“We thought there would be a little more of a surge (of loan applications),” said Renee Smyth, chief experience and marketing officer at Camden National Bank. “We are not experiencing that right now.”

In 2020, lenders issued more than 28,000 PPP loans worth almost $2.3 billion to Maine employers. National demand for the program was so intense that it ran out of money less than two weeks after it launched last April.

In December, Congress allocated another $284 billion to the program, which is intended to provide economic relief to small businesses and nonprofits that suffered revenue losses because of the coronavirus pandemic. It allows qualified employers to take out loans that can be forgiven – converted to grants – if they follow program rules that include spending at least 60 percent of the money on payroll.

More than two weeks since all eligible businesses were allowed to apply for the program’s latest round, about 4,700 loans worth $371 million have been approved for Maine employers.

“We were worried about the money running out and getting customers in on time, but that is not the case,” Smyth said.

Camden National was one of the largest PPP lenders in 2020, processing more than 3,000 loans worth almost $245 million. So far, it has made about one-quarter of that number of loans in the current round.

Restaurants, hotels, transportation services and entertainment industry employers, still struggling nearly a year after COVID-19 emerged in Maine, are major borrowers, Smyth said. Hospitality businesses can derive the greatest benefit because they can receive funding of up to 3.5 times their payroll, compared to 2.5 times for other businesses.

About 90 percent of Camden National’s newly approved PPP loans so far are “second draw” – additional funding for employers that received PPP money last year, Smyth said. Companies can apply for a second loan if they have 300 or fewer employees and show a revenue loss of at least 25 percent during any quarter of 2020 compared with the same period the year before.

Some companies that received a loan in 2020 might not meet the eligibility threshold for another, Smyth added. Professional services, medical firms, construction and other industries secured tens of millions in loans last year but may have since recovered from the confusion and fear that set in when the virus emerged.

“The sense of urgency isn’t there,” Smyth said. “We know so much more today – there is a different outlook than there was a year ago.”

Wright-Pierce, a Topsham environmental engineering firm, said it doesn’t need more government support. It secured a $3.8 million PPP loan last spring, uncertain how the pandemic would affect its business, said Executive Vice President Paul Birkel.

“We got the money and it sat in the bank,” he said. “From month to month, things were going well.”

Business stabilized, then improved, and the company hired four more people. By October, the loan was still untouched, and the company decided to return it.

“We just got to the point that we could not continue to hold onto the money. That was not what it was intended for – not to enrich owners and pay bonuses,” Birkel said. “Our outlook looks good. We don’t feel we are in a position to apply for additional funds.”

Some of the hardest-hit businesses during the pandemic aren’t applying for new PPP loans because they can now turn to another federal program.

Lauren Wayne, general manager of the State Theatre in Portland, is betting that the theater will receive a generous grant from a federal program specifically for the entertainment industry, rather than applying for another Paycheck Protection Program loan. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The State Theater in Portland limped through last year, thanks in part to a PPP loan, but the program was not a good fit for independent venues, said General Manager Lauren Wayne.

Instead of another loan, Wayne will apply for a Shuttered Venue Operators grant, a program created by the latest federal relief package approved by Congress. Companies are barred from receiving a shuttered venue grant and a PPP loan at the same time.

The venue grants provide funding worth 45 percent of gross earned revenue in 2019, up to $10 million. Performing arts venues, movie theaters, museums, aquariums and similar businesses can apply.

Venues such as the State Theater, which lost at least 90 percent of its revenue last year, are first in line for applications, but it is still uncertain when the process will start.

“Hopefully soon – there are businesses out there that are on the cusp of closing, they need it desperately,” Wayne said. “We were the first businesses to close and we have stayed closed. We don’t have any plans or ways to open right now – that is a good year and a half without any revenue.”

Other employers believe another PPP loan will provide a bridge from the dark winter to a more profitable spring and summer.

A PPP loan last year helped keep the doors open at Chaval restaurant in Portland’s West End. But the bistro missed out on the strong summer revenue it typically relies on to cushion the slow winter.

“We had a really hard spring, then we had not a great summer,” owner Ilma Lopez said. “We paid the bills, but we didn’t save anything.”

The restaurant applied for another PPP loan as a matter of course – it has tried to get funding from every kind of state and federal assistance program to stay open and pay its 14 workers.

“We’re doing everything,” Lopez said. “We have to. You don’t have a choice when you have all your eggs in one basket.”

Travel restrictions plus a slow winter season put the Inn at St. John, a 39-room hotel in Portland, near the breaking point. General Manager Terry Morrison said the inn applied for another PPP  loan on the first day applications were accepted and has yet to hear anything back.

“Other businesses have closed,” Morrison said. “We are lucky enough to stay open, but if we don’t get help soon, we’re in trouble.”

An $18-per-hour emergency minimum wage passed by Portland voters in November made the inn’s position even harder, he added. The hotel is paying the wage and abiding by COVID-19 prevention rules, but waiting weeks to receive more funding makes Morrison feel the business and its 16 employees aren’t getting the support they deserve.

“Last year was devastating. My sincere hope is the restrictions get lifted over time and we have a better summer this year,” Morrison said. “We followed all the rules, but we need help and it is not fair to (make us) wait.”

PPP loans are not considered approved until assigned a number by the U.S. Small Business Administration, which oversees the program, and lenders have 10 days to disburse the money after it is approved, an SBA spokeswoman said.

Restaurants, bars, hotels and entertainment venues are not the only companies applying for new PPP loans.

Business at Green Clean Maine home cleaners improved enough by late last year that owner Joe Walsh thought he could avoid applying for another loan.

But the last three months of soaring COVID-19 infections in Maine has forced workers to miss jobs because they were exposed to the virus through a family member.

“High absenteeism because of COVID-19 is a really big drag on the business, and it has kept us from being able to staff back up,” Walsh said.

It has been impossible to fill four open positions at the business, even with high customer demand, he said. Walsh expects to be approved for a new PPP loan and intends to use the funds for hazard pay bonuses to thank and retain workers.

“With this round of funding we’ll be good for a while,” he said. “I hate to say ‘for good,’ because it seems like the virus keeps having surprises pop up.”

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