U.S. Sen. Susan Collins speaks to employees at Moody’s Collision Center in Gorham in July, touting her role in the federal Paycheck Protection Program. Credit: Troy R. Bennett | BDN

As small business owners, this year has been the toughest year we’ve ever faced.

Wild Oats Bakery in Brunswick has been a staple of our community for 30 years, and when the coronavirus hit, we had to adapt following the rapid shutdown across the state, and we’re now trying to plan for a fall semester with fewer students at Bowdoin College. We’ve been able to manage so far, offering new services like a recipe subscription and curbside pickup, but after more than three months, we are still only doing about one-third of our normal business.

It was even more difficult for Cafe Sorpreso and Cafe Demoiselles in Presque Isle. We had been in business for more than 12 years, but after the coronavirus pandemic shut everything down and we discovered that federal support did not address our needs, we were forced to close our doors forever.

For too many small businesses — especially in the restaurant and hospitality industry — this has been a sobering and difficult experience. We recognize that the coronavirus is truly unprecedented and that federal lawmakers have worked hard to provide relief, but we are discouraged by what we view as attempts to belittle our experiences and ignore the remaining challenges facing restaurant owners.

Sadly, that seems to be what Sen. Susan Collins is doing. She trumpets her work on the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), without acknowledging the difficulties we still face or reacting to address our concerns.

For us, the reality has been that the PPP was a poor fit for restaurants when we needed help most. In the early days of the pandemic, we found this supposedly lifesaving program structured in a way that was difficult, if not entirely unworkable, for restaurants like ours. Due in part to those structural flaws, the PPP did not work for Cafe Sorpreso and Cafe Demoiselles, and we were forced to close permanently.

As we tried to figure out whether the PPP would work for us at Wild Oats, we contacted Collins’ office for assistance and were told that the program would not work for every type of small business. At the same time, we all continued to wait for the Republican-led Senate as they repeatedly promised a restaurant-focused relief bill that has never materialized.

We were left to figure it out on our own, and we found that the program was not initially set up with restaurants in mind.

When the program was announced, the rules around loan forgiveness were not flexible, and they weren’t released early enough to give us time to prepare. Instead, we were forced to spend our dwindling reserves on legal and accounting services to determine if the program would work for us. But even after Wild Oats received a loan, we soon regretted the decision to apply in the first place — no one was available to answer questions, and we were forced to temporarily close until the rules were better clarified.

For Cafe Sorpreso and Cafe Demoiselles, the program was also a bad fit from the start. The architects of the program failed to take into consideration how social distancing would affect a small operation like ours. Taking on debt is a poor substitute for true relief, and we could not afford the risk associated with taking on debt for years to come.

In response, restaurant owners across the state raised their voices and asked for changes to the program to better fit our businesses. Maine’s businesses were fortunate to have Sen. Angus King leading the charge to improve the program while incorporating the industry’s feedback.

Collins has touted the program in TV ads, trying to run for re-election on the back of the program. Yet restaurants are still closing, and many small businesses were suffering because they could not access the loan before large, publicly-traded companies siphoned millions from the program.

When we needed relief the most, the PPP could not deliver. We recognize that it has helped many businesses, but for many others, it was poorly designed, poorly communicated, and inadequate to help keep Maine’s hospitality industry alive.

Becky Shepherd is the owner of Wild Oats in Brunswick. Judith Boudman owned Cafe Sorpreso and Cafe Demoiselles in Presque Isle.