Joe Walsh, founder and CEO of Green Clean Maine, a residential cleaning company, inside a customer's home in this April 2020 file photo. Credit: Courtesy of Emilie Sommer / Emilie Inc. Photography

Joe Walsh was humbled when pandemic restrictions forced him to close his business and lay off staff for six weeks last year. Regular customers kept paying anyway, with some sending in extra checks to his cleaning business.

He used the money to build an employee support fund to help with rent and groceries. Walsh said that kind of community support is one reason Maine is a good place to start and run a business.

“Part of the culture in Maine is support for local, independent businesses,” said Walsh, who owns Green Clean Maine, a 14-year-old house cleaning company in Portland. “Maine has a tight-knit business community.”

A national survey released Thursday that ranked Maine first for small business friendliness mirrors Walsh’s sentiments. Home management company Thumbtack surveyed more than 3,600 small business owners nationwide in service industries including cleaning, catering, entertainment and landscaping, asking them how well federal, state and local governments support them. The survey ran from July 2020 until July 2021.

Maine received A+ grades for overall support and for training programs, A-minuses for starting a business and ease of licensing and Bs for state, labor and tax regulations. It received a failing grade for the ease of hiring employees, however.

Workforce is an ongoing challenge for Walsh and other small businesses. Only 25 of his pre-pandemic staff of 35 returned. At the same time, about 90 percent of his customers have come back.

“We haven’t recovered yet because of the recruiting situation,” he said.

Jolain’s Gourmet owner Joe Cameron said it has been difficult to get people to join his core catering staff of five people. But he has found it easy to set up and run his 17-year-old business in Bangor.

Demand for catering is strong, especially for weddings and events. That is after a lull in his industry most of the past year. The state lifted pandemic restrictions on large group gatherings in late May, one of the last set of limitations to be lifted. That brought renewed demand for events like barbecues with buffet-style eating.

Steve Cornish, owner of Magical DJ Productions, a magic and disc jockey company based in Lewiston, also is seeing demand rise for his services at weddings and private parties, campgrounds and bar mitzvahs.

“This is the best year of my life for business because people want to get out and do things again,” said Cornish, a sole proprietor who has been in business for 15 years.

Optimism among small business owners compares to pre-pandemic levels, although businesses are aware of the uncertainty the more contagious delta variant brings to the near future, Andrew Heritage, lead economist at Thumbtack, said.

Nationwide, 87 percent of businesses surveyed by Thumbtack said their community has enough economic opportunity for their business to thrive. That is 11 percent higher than in its 2019 survey.

Some 41 percent of respondents nationwide said they generated more revenue in the first half of this year compared to the same time in 2020, but the costs of operating a business, including healthcare insurance and state taxes, are a burden.

Walsh said he weighs everything, including business costs and community support, when he thinks of Maine’s business-friendliness.

“It’s a balance between all factors,” he said.

Lori Valigra, investigative reporter for the environment, holds an M.S. in journalism from Boston University. She was a Knight journalism fellow at M.I.T. and has extensive international reporting experience...