The city council of Portland, Maine, on Monday effectively suspended its previous rules forbidding nonessential businesses of all sizes to conduct curbside, delivery or mail order and imposing fines of up to six months in jail and up to $1,000 in civil penalties for those that do.
In publishing a list of frequently asked questions, the city on Friday had warned that retailers caught violating the order "could be subject to a $500 civil penalty and costs of prosecution, and the suspension or revocation of your City business license."
After an outcry from local retailers, the council on Monday held an emergency workshop, when members agreed not to enforce their order and to take it up again when they reconvene April 27.
As governors across the country faced scattered protests against various stay-at-home orders and struggled with the competing goals of stemming the COVID-19 pandemic and fostering their economies, Portland, Maine, walked back rules that had exceeded the state in clamping down on any sales by nonessential retailers.
Small retailers, which depend mostly on in-store shopping, had scrambled to find ways to eke out sales as doors were shuttered, but discovered last week that many efforts to offer curbside, home delivery or even fulfillment through the postal system ran afoul of the city's ordinance, which appeared to be among the most stringent nationwide.
That left Amazon and other big-box retailers that much more free to take share in selling books, home goods, apparel and other discretionary goods. Several small-business owners told Retail Dive that, in contrast, measures taken by Vermont, Michigan and Virginia to limit such sales at national chains help even the playing field for stores that are forced to close.
"You're describing a very extreme public policy, that's an aberration," Nick Egelanian, president of retail real estate firm SiteWorks, said of Portland's rules, warning in an interview that not even e-commerce is much of a lifeline for small businesses normally dependent on brick-and-mortar operations. "The average small restaurant or mom-and-pop store has 30 to 60 days of cash available, some less than 30. What are we going to do to help the retailer through that process? Bottom line, there are only losers. There are really no winners right now."
Jennifer Rockwell, who runs secondhand apparel shop Material Objects in downtown Portland, has been selling items through Instagram for the first time, which technically runs afoul of the city's rules.
Erin Kiley, owner of secondhand furniture and home goods shop Flea for All, on the business' Instagram page Friday urged her fellow retailers to call council members to revisit the bans. "We support the @cityportland for its efforts to get ahead of the curve. But at a time when most small businesses are struggling to survive, banning all online and local sales — our only available cash flow — is insane," the post read. "Bottom line — if we can't ship or deliver, we can't survive."
In an email to Retail Dive over the weekend, Portland Mayor Kate Snyder said the city's rules had been adopted before the governor's own stay-at-home order was released. "Now that the State has an Order in Place, towns/cities can be more restrictive, but not less," she said. But during Monday's workshop, council member Kim Cook, who had opposed the strict rules, said that, while the city, as the state's most populous, represented the hotspot of the outbreak in Maine, the governor and the state's public health office were aware of that when they developed the statewide rules.
Mary Alice Scott, executive director of advocacy group Portland Buy Local, hailed the about-face. "We are very grateful to the Mayor and City Council for moving quickly in response to feedback from the local business community," she told Retail Dive in an email. "We all want the local businesses that give Portland its unique flavor to be able to re-open eventually. Allowing for no-contact delivery and shipping will help these local businesses pay their bills while following social distancing and keeping their doors closed to the public."