By Erin Bank
On Tuesday, March 17, San Franciscans and residents of neighboring Bay Area counties woke up to shelter-in-place orders, which were put into effect to slow the exponential increase in COVID-19 cases (from 1 case on Feb. 1 to 557 cases on March 21 in the Bay Area).
The State of California quickly followed suit: Gov. Gavin Newsom announced similar measures during a press conference on Thursday, March 19.
By limiting human interactions, called “social distancing,” the transmission of the COVID-19 virus is slowed down. Even if the same number of people eventually get infected, social distancing is important because it can decrease the spike in infection that can lead to overburdened health care systems. If hospitals see fewer cases, they are better able to care for those who are in critical condition in an environment where test kits, protective equipment and essential medical devices such as respirators are in short supply.
Under these shelter-in-place orders, all non-essential businesses must close, which means dine-in restaurants, bars and nightclubs, entertainment venues, and gyms and fitness studios had to shut their doors in a very short amount of time.
In a statement from SF Mayor London Breed, she acknowledged: “We know that this will have a large impact on people’s lives, our economy, our revenues and our small businesses. We will continue to do more to help our residents, workers and businesses through this challenging time.”
In the Richmond District, the degree to which local businesses are being affected varies based on when they were forced to close and their ability to maintain other ways to generate income. But they are all struggling to support their employees and their customers and await an uncertain future if and when they reopen.
“Business stayed pretty strong right up until we were mandated to close,” said Kevin Ryan, co-owner of Green Apple Books on Clement Street. “In fact, we had scheduled to close at 6 p.m. on Monday (March 16) but stayed open an extra hour to accommodate all of the people in the store.”
“February and March are generally slower for us,” said Adam Bergeron of the Balboa Theater, “but we’re in a bit of a desperate situation.”
Richmond restaurant Cassava is experiencing a 90% decrease in business after closing completely to dine-in customers under the shelter-in-place orders.
Lou’s Cafe on Geary is losing 60% of its usual sales.
“After the shelter-in-place was in effect, we saw sales drop drastically which made it very difficult to imagine how we would cover overhead and operating costs (rent, employee wage, cost of goods, etc.),” explained TJ Brodeth of Lou’s Cafe. “At this point, it’s the smart decision and very important that we quarantine so we can somehow flatten the curve. But at this rate, the only avenues to survive are really through online ordering platforms.”
He has needed to increase availability across delivery platforms such as Grubhub, Caviar, UberEats, Doordash, and Postmates – something he has never needed to do until the COVID-19 crisis.
Cassava and Cinderella Bakery are also adjusting their business models to allow for take-out orders, but these methods produce only a small percentage of their normal revenue.
“Our suppliers are also facing some of the same challenges,” Marika Fishman of Cinderella Bakery said. “Getting supplies has been more difficult. The safety and health of all comes first.”
Even businesses that do not typically have a separate online presence are turning to alternative revenue streams. The Balboa Theater started selling T-shirts, tote bags and their 5-for-$40 loyalty cards on its website (sfcinema.com/merch).
All proceeds from the sale of tote bags and T-shirts goes to Balboa Theater employees; in addition, the employees have a GoFundMe to sustain them until unemployment kicks in. “They are vibrant members of the community,” Bergeron said. “It is so heartwarming. We’ve already had 400 orders. It’s almost just like we were open.”
What is common among all businesses is a deep concern for their employees.
“We are doing our best to keep our employees during difficult times, and even though we may have cut hours, we have not let anyone go. We are hoping to retain all our staff,” Fishman said.
“We let our employees know that they are as much as family as my brothers and mom and dad,” Brodeth said. “I’m very transparent with them and let them know that we are facing tough challenges ahead of us, but we have to band together and help each other get through this.”
“Everybody is fully covered by Kaiser,” said Yuka Ioroi, general manager at Cassava. ”We are cashing out sick pay to cover for this week’s shift pay. They have all applied for reduced wages with unemployment insurance, and moreover we asked them to apply for Covered California so even if we go bankrupt and can’t pay for the insurance, their coverage won’t lapse.”
City and state measures to support businesses and employees help buffer some of the challenges, but Ioroi worries it was too little, too late.
“There were not enough cash injections,” she said. “All of these plans needed to happen in January. We should have received funds to afford the closure way ahead of time, and be notified of the closure scheduled date.”
State Sen. Scott Weiner issued the following statement: “This crisis is unlike anything we’ve ever faced, but we are a strong community and will get through this. We must support each other as we move through the emergency. It’s my job as a senator to shore up our social safety net, and to communicate San Francisco’s needs to the governor and to the legislature. I will keep doing that, and invite feedback and communication from constituents right now about how I can best serve you.”
Weiner encouraged citizens to visit edd.ca.gov to access resources available through the State of California, including expanded disability, unemployment and paid family leave benefits.
Breed’s statement also includes information for struggling small businesses: “The City is establishing a fund to provide immediate relief for impacted small businesses. We will provide up to 100 businesses with $10,000 each in immediate relief. We are also working with private sector financial partners and philanthropy to identify resources like lines of credit and loans for small businesses.”
The San Francisco Office of Economic and Workforce Development has an online guide for employers and employees seeking support during the COVID-19 outbreak, and for anyone wishing to understand the City’s response: http://www.oewd.org/covid19.
Green Apple’s Ryan said the City’s freeze on commercial evictions has already been a huge weight lifted off his shoulders and will allow them to continue paying staff longer.
Lou’s Cafe’s Brodeth recognizes that the extension of city tax due dates “will help prolong any payments due in the near future which would help keep our business open a little longer. But with the overall loss in sales from day to day, it’s really tough to recover from that type of hit.”
This uncertainty and fear for what the future holds is echoed widely.
“We have no real idea when we will actually be able to unlock the doors and get back to business, and no idea what that business will look like once we are allowed to reopen,” Ryan said.
Bergeron trusts that the government will provide relief. He notes that no small business can survive being closed for three to four weeks, and that it is up to the government – be it local, state, or federal – to rescue small businesses.
“Otherwise, we’ll have much bigger problems, like millions of unemployed people,” he said.
In spite of the enormous challenges these businesses face, they remain committed to their neighborhoods and customers and ask for continued support during the shelter-in-place.
“For Lou’s Cafe on Geary, we actually just celebrated our 10-year anniversary yesterday, March 19. Although these times are tough, we offered free chips for every sandwich or salad purchased. It’s not much, but it’s our token of appreciation for all the patrons and supporters of Lou’s Cafe over the past ten years,” Brodeth said.
Green Apple’s Ryan and Cinderella Bakery’s Fishman both emphasize the importance of online ordering and purchasing gift cards.
“We are getting a lot of support from the community in the form of online orders, which doesn’t replace sales coming in the door on a normal day, but does put some revenue into the bank that will help us ride out the storm a bit longer,” Ryan said. “Anyone who really wanted to help could buy gift cards for future use. This would work almost as a mini GoFundMe if a lot of people invested in gift cards.”
“Right now we need to focus on being kind to one another,” Fishman said. “The community can continue to support small businesses and following the safety rules in place. We need to stay healthy and keep each other safe. There will definitely be challenges and a period of adjustment for all of us.”
“The community has been incredibly generous,” says Bergeron. “It’s a glimmer of hope.”
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