By VINCE MEEHAN | Downtown & Uptown News
These are unorthodox times indeed, and therefore this is an unorthodox article. My editor asked me write a story on the effects of the COVID-19 shutdown on local businesses because the situation rendered a lot of our local content irrelevant. I accepted the challenge but the trajectory of the story evolved daily due to ever-changing developments. The partial shutdown went full-blown lockdown within a week and many businesses that were open with special circumstances were shut down completely.
San Diego is a tourist destination and the hospitality industry was hit hard. Restaurants and other attractions were the first to close and their employees are a huge percentage of our workforce. The revenue lost is unprecedented and the loss of income devastating to the waiters, bartenders and cooks of the industry. Businesses have been forced to adapt and some have found ways to stay open despite the mandates.
Angela Landsberg is the Executive Director at North Park Main Street, the non-profit organization committed to the development of the North Park Business Improvement District. In her position, she has her finger on the pulse of the North Park business community and knows what’s going on at the street level. She says that many businesses are still open, specifically the ones that sell food. These eateries are staying open by offering take-out service for their customers. Due to the hardships, the normal ban on restaurants selling beer or cocktails to go was lifted to help the restaurants stay open. Many pizza outlets have not had to adjust much since take-out orders were always a big part of their operation. But retail shops are hit hard by the shutdown and with no people roaming the shopping district, the normally vibrant street scene in North Park looks more like a ghost town.
In the face of adversity, moments of humanity shine through, providing uplifting moments in the middle of the crisis. Landsberg noted that the owners of Tribute Pizza and Pete’s Seafood provided free food to several North Park families that were hard hit by the shutdown and short on food. She also mentioned that several North Park property owners had offered to suspend rent payments on businesses during the shutdown as a way to support North Park. A full list of North Park businesses that are open is available at ExploreNorthPark.com.
Mike Hess is the founder of Mike Hess Brewing, which has been a fixture in North Park for almost ten years. Unfortunately, Hess had to lay off 85% of his staff due to the virus. But on a positive note, he was able to retain 75% of his production staff to continue brewing beer. Many breweries are staying open not only by selling cans and growlers to go, but also by continuing their beer production operations. Hess credits diversifying his operation into three separate revenue streams recently as being critical in staying open during the crisis. He not only has his on-sale stream, but also a distribution leg as well as big-box contracts with places like Costco and Trader Joe’s. He said he was off to a banner year with a projected growth of 25% from last year when the virus hit and stopped it all dead in its tracks. A huge order from Costco for some of his IPAs is being filled and saving his business.
Recently, the lifting of long-standing restrictions on making liquor in California led to several craft spirits distillers in San Diego such as Liberty Call and Cutwater. While several have suspended operations, Pacific Coast Spirits in Oceanside has remained open by using its stills to produce hand sanitizer. This type of ingenuity is not only allowing companies to remain viable, but helps with the effort to eradicate the virus.
Another huge part of San Diego’s tourist economy are the museums and attractions that employ a large part of our workforce. Attractions like Legoland and SeaWorld are shut down as well as museums like the U.S.S Midway and the Museum of Art. Beth Chee is the marketing director of the Birch Aquarium, which has closed its doors to the public as well. But the aquarium cannot function without a support staff to keep the fish fed and tend to administration tasks. She says that a core group will continue to serve the aquarium until the shutdown is lifted.
“Staff will continue working; we are still meeting to establish schedules, but it will be a combination of on-site and work-from-home, depending on tasks,” Chee said. “Husbandry staff has to be on site, but there’s a lot of work behind the scenes that needs to continue. For those whose jobs are solely dependent on the guest experience, we are doing some cross training, so they can help in other departments. We will be monitoring the situation, and following guidelines from the CDC, the WHO and UC San Diego in order to decide when it’s safe to open and/or begin running programs again.”
Deacon Jim Vargas is the President and CEO of Father Joe’s Villages, which has been hit by the shutdown as well. His foundation has taken the lead in helping the 10,000 – if not more – homeless that live on the streets of San Diego. These people are some of the most vulnerable in San Diego to the pandemic and Vargas is finding it challenging to keep his program running on all cylinders.
“We are the largest and the oldest homeless services provider in Southern California due to the depth of the services we offer,” Vargas said. Many on his staff have had to stay at home to care for family members, but Vargas is working to come up with viable solutions to this. Phone-based counseling has replaced face-to-face meetings and social services are now prioritized by extreme need. Vargas continues his daily meals for the homeless, but sack lunches now take the place of the usual dining centers. He has also set up an emergency response fund to help keep his services up and running which can be found on his website. People can contribute whatever they can afford directly to Father Joe’s on this site.
One of the biggest factors bringing stress to San Diegans is the uncertainty of the length of this shutdown. Nobody can say at this time how long these measures will take, but by studying the measures taken by countries affected first by the pandemic, a better understanding of the timeline can be forecast.
I spoke with a college student from China who is in constant contact with his family and friends back home. He told me about the novel coronavirus situation as it is currently. “They are much more optimistic these days as it seems the quarantine worked and the worst of the outbreak is over. They also have an amazing online network in the cities so picking up food and supplies is an easy click away and there’s no need to hoard!”
I also talked to a friend of his who lives in China to get a first-hand account of the current situation. Both students requested to stay anonymous, but offered keen insight into the progress of the epidemic. The student in China said that the quarantine had been in effect for a month and a half, but life is beginning to return to normal as the cases decrease. Restaurants have reopened, but the children have not been allowed to return to school yet. The Chinese are waiting for the okay from the government for the schools to reopen as a sign that the virus is finally under control. As the student put it, “The invisible war has not yet been won, so we are not abandoning our precautions until that time.”
He also noted that the Chinese people fully cooperated with the quarantine because the gravity of the situation was very life-or-death as far as they were concerned. He mentioned that the media aired constant demonstrations on how to avoid the virus by washing hands, wearing masks, and avoiding crowds. This educated the people and helped keep the virus from spreading further.
As of this writing, a major stimulus package to help Americans and their businesses is being negotiated. Exactly what is included in this package and how much money is distributed to out-of-work San Diegans will be a critical factor in how we all emerge from this crisis.
— Vince Meehan can be reached at email@example.com.