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After tumultuous 2020, Houlton downtown businesses look to what’s next

HOULTON, Maine — For business owners on Houlton’s Market Square and Main Street, 2020 brought on issues they could never have possibly anticipated. 

Restaurants and dine-in services found themselves closed down in March after Gov. Janet Mills ordered all businesses closed as part of a lockdown to prevent the spread of COVID-19. New ways of doing businesses, such as curbside pickup and delivery, had to be implemented in order to maintain a flow of income. Stores had to restructure their indoor arrangements in order to make room for social distancing. 

Though Mills lifted some of the restrictions on restaurants in May, allowing for indoor dining, some chose to remain closed for indoor dining. Joyce Transue, owner of Courtyard Cafe in Houlton, has continued to provide only curbside pickup and delivery throughout the pandemic. 

“I don’t feel comfortable, nor does my very small staff, opening the door to the public, considering the issues that arise from the cost of reconfiguring the restaurant,” Transue said. “Has it impacted my business? Absolutely, dramatically. It’s so close to the edge most of the time that I wonder if it’s even worth trying to hold on.” 

Transue says she doesn’t intend to open back up until most residents have been able to receive a vaccination. She also intends to use the cafe as a drop-off location for people to donate goods to serve others who have been economically affected by the pandemic, such as gloves, hand sanitizer and canned food items. 

“I feel very lucky that I can go home at night and have a roof over my head, and I have a job to come into every day,” she said. “We feel like it’s a good time for us to try to help other people as well.”

Two buildings down from Courtyard Cafe, the County Co-Op and Farm Store is also looking to readjust for 2021. When the pandemic first struck, the co-op was reduced to one employee and revenues fell 40 percent, Jane Torres, executive director for County Co-Op, said. 

But money received from the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program, as well as enforcing a strict mask policy, helped bring back business. 

“With support from PPP and the CARES act, we did a lot better,” Torres said. “It was almost like a panic situation, but enforcing masks and people’s safety brought back customers.” 

She said the Co-Op in 2021 will add more emphasis on its grocery products, get greater outreach to its members and begin to offer classes in things such as canning and gardening. 

“We’re going to be more proactive,” Torres said. “Less on the cafe side, more on the grocery side.” 

Serendipity Dragonfly, formerly known as Jean’s Serendipity, is another downtown business that went through extensive changes in 2020. 

Last February, the store changed hands from being owned by Jean and Robert Sloat to their daughter Katie, who rebranded the store and gave it an online presence. She began listing items for sale online to boost business — something she intends to keep doing even after vaccinations are administered. 

“We’ll keep doing a lot of the online interaction,” Sloat said. “And eventually, as things get back to normal, we’ll be able to do more in-store activities just to get people coming out more.”

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