Taking a page from the pandemic playbook, Maine businesses call it a snow day

Jan. 24—In a winter where snow has been sparse, closing Monday wasn't a particularly close call for Charlie Mitchell, owner of Bayside Bowl in Portland.

Once he was told that a league had decided to cancel their Monday night games, Mitchell said, he made an "easy" decision to shut down the popular Alder Street bowling alley for the day.

"I have a ton of staff with young families, and I figured, let them enjoy a snow day with their children," he said.

It's a reaction that seems to be more common this winter, as businesses employ some lessons of the pandemic to the challenges of Maine weather.

The state's snowfall has gotten off to a slow start. Before last Friday, little had fallen. Monday deposited a half foot in southern Maine and more than a foot in the central and northern parts of the state. Stalwart merchants, such as all 16 Renys stores, didn't open for the day.

Some businesses that might typically stay open say they're inclined to close — and give workers a break, rather than forcing them to brave a difficult commute as road conditions worsen. It's a decision driven by the idea that a business can shutter for a short term and bounce back, and also an effort to respond to staff preferences during a worker shortage. Whether to pay employees on a snow day is also a factor, but safety comes first.

"My reason (for closing) was the safety of the staff," said Catherine Rasco, the owner of Arabica Coffee on Free Street, who said she made the call after forecasts on Sunday upped predictions to 9 inches for Portland.

Rasco said she didn't like having to close — she knows that a stop at her shop is part of the daily routine for many of her customers. But she also said she's learned that closing for a day isn't as big of a deal as it might have been three years ago.

"It seems like it's OK to close," she said. "It's not the end of the world."

Joe Stinson said he shares that sentiment and put it into practice Monday morning, as he and his wife drove to their antique store and pawn shop on Forest Avenue. Stinson said the couple saw conditions worsening and decided to close for the day in order not to put customers at risk on snow-covered sidewalks or slick roads.

"I wanted to keep people off the road," Stinson said. "You know when it's a day you should stay in and put the answering machines on,"

Stinson said technology also played a role in deciding when he should close the store. About 75% of his buying and selling is now done online, he said, making walk-in traffic a less critical part of the business.

His customers, Stinson said, are also more likely to opt for safety and wait to visit on a day more conducive to traveling. So he figured he wouldn't miss out on much business if he closed during the storm.

One thing the last few years have taught him, Stinson said, is "it can always wait for tomorrow."

At Bayside Bowl, Mitchell said he welcomed the chance to give his staff a day off. He said the business has been growing and work has been pretty much nonstop since last summer. So once the league canceled, he said, shutting down Bayside's 20 lanes for the day was almost a no-brainer.

And, he said, the relatively snowless winter so far made him more sensitive to a snowfall that was far off from a record-breaker.

"The first storm of the year always gets more attention," Mitchell said.