The State Theatre on Congress Street in Portland, where a return to business as usual isn't expected until COVID-19 vaccinations are widespread and national touring acts are back on the road. (Portland Phoenix/Colin Ellis)
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It’s over. Finally. The year that no one could have predicted and certainly no one wanted, ended last week – although the tendrils of 2020, marked by the start of the coronavirus pandemic, continue to touch all our lives.

In Portland, the effects of the pandemic are most visible in a strangely quiet downtown, where formerly bustling businesses and restaurants have barely been able to keep the lights on. Well-known enterprises like Bull Moose Music and Port City Music Hall headlined a list of businesses claimed by 2020.

Sure, the catharsis of turning the calendar from December to January can create something of a honeymoon period, but can Portland actually be sanguine about the coming year? We asked people representing various sectors of city life for their realistic expectations and hopes for 2021; most are cautiously optimistic, at least for now.

City governance

Portland Mayor Kate Snyder said any forecasting for 2021 must still be done with COVID-19 in mind. While a vaccine is being rolled out in Maine, the number of new cases each day remains at historic highs. She said that’s why she asked the City Council to extend an emergency order into May.

“It’s important to remind people we’re not out of the woods,” Snyder said, “that vigilance is still required.”

Portland Mayor Kate Snyder.

With COVID-19 still very much on the minds of city officials, she said the city would allow restaurants to continue to operate outdoor dining beyond Jan. 4.

“We want to make sure we are providing an environment for the small businesses that are suffering,” Snyder said.

She said the virus will continue to complicate the everyday business of running the city, including building the fiscal year 2022 budget. Portland was forced to delay its 2021 budget discussions several months because of the pandemic. But regardless, Snyder said the day-to-day work of municipal government will continue.

“In some ways, it’s important to ground people in the day-to-day business of running a city,” Snyder said. “That is so much of the work, and then heading into 2021, we need to be realistic of what the revenue forecast looks like.”

There are a few big-ticket items facing the city in 2021, which are carry-overs from 2020. For example, Snyder said the council is slated to vote on a Munjoy Hill Historic District in February, with a workshop scheduled for Jan. 11. It will come before a council with three new members, who were not part of any past discussions on the matter.

“I can’t say what outcome we’re leaning towards, but we’re doing our best to make sure people are equipped to cast a vote on Feb. 1,” the mayor said.

Another major issue that will return to the city this year is the upcoming creation of a Charter Commission. Due to debates and delays, the full commission won’t be set until a regularly scheduled election in June. Snyder said the commission will do important work, and nomination papers should be available in early February.

The role of the mayor and city manager came up frequently last summer and fall during public discussions on the Charter Commission, and Snyder said the group has the ability to look at any and all aspects of the City Charter. However, any changes the panel proposes, including the roles of the mayor and city manager, would still have to be voted on by the public. She also said it is important to remember that fair election issues, not the roles of the mayor and city manager, were the impetus for creating the Charter Commission.

Snyder said an added challenge is the city will have to begin looking for a new city manager, because Jon Jennings’ recently extended contract expires in July 2022. She said the commission’s work likely won’t be concluded by the time the city begins searching for the next manager, which will complicate things because the scope of the manager’s job could change.

Restaurants

Nearly 30,000 hospitality jobs were lost in Maine last year, along with nearly $1.8 billion in revenue, based on a University of Maine study commissioned by Hospitality Maine, the nonprofit organization representing restaurants and the hospitality industry in the state.

But Steve Hewins, soon to be former president and CEO of Hospitality Maine, said there is industry optimism about 2021, even though this winter could still be tough on restaurants and most owners he’s spoken with don’t expect business to really start returning to normal until late spring or early summer.

“We have a deep hole to dig out of,” Hewins said.

But there is also the belief that things can’t possibly get worse. So, assuming the worst is behind them, he said restaurants can be hopeful about 2021, especially as people begin to get vaccinated.

Portland restaurateur Steve DiMillo.

Hewins said the restaurant industry is dynamic, and restaurants will continue to be creative in the face of adversity. He also said even though many restaurants have closed due to the pandemic, their spaces will most likely be repopulated by new restaurants.

In the meantime, he said CARES Act funding will allow some restaurants to “limp through the next month or two” with the hope of coming out on the other side.

“Once vaccinations are more widely dispersed, we’re going to see an interest in people getting back out in bars and restaurants and entertainment venues,” Hewins said.

Steve DiMillo, manager of DiMillo’s on the Water, is one of the optimistic restaurateurs.

“I think there’s certainly a percentage of the population that are not comfortable dining, so they may be sticking to curbside and delivery options,” DiMillo said.

But he also said more and more residents are coming back to his restaurant, especially once they’ve seen the steps DiMillo’s has taken to create a safe environment, including spacing tables and bar stools, and installing acrylic dividers.

“As long as (COVID-19) numbers don’t spike in Maine again, the confidence level will increase and we’ll be busy,” DiMillo said.

DiMillo, who also chairs the board of directors of Hospitality Maine, said he’s also heard from restaurateurs around the state. “There’s a sense of optimism in the air of better things to come,” he said. 

Live entertainment

Lauren Wayne, general manager of the State Theatre and Thompson’s Point, said the nature of live events changes every month. And realistically, she said, her venues won’t be anywhere close to full capacity for quite some time, probably most if not all of 2021.

It all depends on when a COVID-19 vaccine becomes widely available.

“We’re operating under the assumption we will be under government-mandated restrictions for most of the year,” Wayne said. “We’re planning on doing whatever we can do while operating under those restrictions.”

But there are other factors, too, she said. The State Theatre and Thompson’s Point both rely on national acts and therefore need touring performers to come back.

“We don’t have a business unless the touring industry is operating,” she said.

Wayne said the Save Our Stages Act, a small business bill to support local venues, provided some help and should keep the venues afloat during the “dark days” of February and March.

She said “2021 will be a hot mess of figuring things out, but a hopeful mess.”

Anita Stewart of Portland Stage Company.

Anita Stewart, executive and artistic director of Portland Stage Company, said she also doesn’t expect full-capacity live performances to return anytime soon.

“It’s probably going to be a full year before we get back to having the same sort of numbers of people feeling comfortable coming into a performing arts space and enjoying a live performance,” Stewart said.

Stewart said Portland Stage was one of the first to close because of the pandemic. Now it is one of the only venues to have resumed live, scaled-back performances, with audiences of no more than about 50 people for a pair of one- and two-person shows.

“I went to see the show live, and being in the audience reminded me of what it is about a live performance that is so compelling,” Stewart said. “You don’t know what’s going to happen, and there are moments of sheer brilliance. And there are also line bobbles.”

She said the decision to stay small has helped ensure the performers and Portland Stage Company workers can remain employed, while still finding ways to connect with the community.

“Hopefully 2021 is a light at the end of the tunnel for all of us in the performing arts sector, but it’s going to be a super hard year,” Stewart said.

Nonprofits

Jennifer Hutchins, executive director of the Maine Association of Nonprofits, said the economic fallout from the coronavirus will be a major concern for nonprofits going forward.

Jennifer Hutchins of the Maine Association of Nonprofits.

“While obviously, we’re seeing some hopeful signs with a vaccination, clearly we all understand that it’s going to take a long time to filter down to have an impact where there are going to be long term economic impacts on this,” Hutchins said.

MANP, a Portland-based nonprofit itself, is an organization that provides resources to about 1,000 organizations around the state.

Hutchins said the pandemic impacted various nonprofits in different ways. Those dealing with the pandemic or involved in health care probably fared better than others, she said. And with that philanthropy producing more donations, organizations in other sectors – for example, the environment – face challenges going forward.

She said another ongoing challenge in the nonprofit sector is trying to figure out what the recently passed federal COVID-19 relief package might mean for small businesses and nonprofits, and whether there will be more federal or state relief coming.

“We know donations follow the stock market, but people are wondering what the stock market will look like in 2021,” Hutchins said. “I would say we’re going into 2021 feeling very positive we appear to be coming out of the pandemic. But at the same time (there is) trepidation about the economic impacts.”

Higher education

University of Southern Maine President Glenn Cummings said he knows students and faculty want to be more connected again. He said the stress the pandemic put on college students around the country, sending them into virtual classrooms, away from their friends and normal extracurricular activities, was a major issue.

“That’s our biggest hope and dream for 2021, that we will have that connection again, that we will be united as a university in being close and supportive,” Cummings said last week.

USM President Glenn Cummings.

He said the plight of students in the University of Maine system was shared by students across the country, and all those students should be proud of how they handled the crisis. While not every college campus in the country adhered to the best practices during the pandemic, he said across Maine students stepped up to what was expected of them.

“There’s not much worse you can do to a 20-year-old than isolate them from their friends, so I hope there’s a sense of pride in what they exhibited,” Cummings said.

On the horizon for USM is a plan to renovate the Portland campus, with a new student center and dormitory. Cummings said this project will go a long way toward the city’s goal of achieving greater affordable housing. He said the pandemic has only increased the need because housing costs have increased.

But coupled with the need for more affordable housing, Cummings said, is the commitment to creating greater racial equity in the city.

He said at USM there is plenty of reason for hope and optimism when it comes to racial equity, especially when looking at the student government, where many leaders are students of color. He said racial equity is often given lip service, but he feels that USM and other universities are making progress.

“Colleges and universities have to continue this reckoning of what it means to create a truly equitable university,” Cummings said.