Temecula mayor juggles running business and city

James Stewart
Temecula Mayor James Stewart, owner of Stews Barber Shops seen standing inside one of his Temecula shops, is advocating for COVID-19 restrictions on businesses to be lifted as the threat of a negative longterm impact on the economy looms from lockdowns continuing to be enforced. Valley News/Shane Gibson photo

James Stewart wears a couple of different hats. “Stew,” as he prefers to be referred to, is the mayor of Temecula, of course.

But he’s also a small-town barbershop owner.

Well, if we’re being honest, “small” might not mean what it used to mean in Temecula – for one, the traffic Temecula experiences during non-pandemic times makes it clear that its small-town days are long gone, and for another, Stews Barber Shop is a full-fledged local chain, with four locations between Redhawk and downtown Lake Elsinore, plus another one in Ladera Ranch.

And that has, of course, colored his perception of the coronavirus emergency. In addition to being the mayor, he also knows what it’s like to be running a business right now.

“Running,” of course, doesn’t mean a whole lot right now – barbershops are not considered essential.

“The state shut down barbershops, all nonessential, so there is no business,” Stew said.

Most of what Stew has been doing over the last weeks and months has involved trying to get his rent paid.

“My landlords are giving me no forgiveness at all,” he said.

Fortunately, Stew’s chain qualifies for paycheck protection program funds from the federal government, and he can use 25% of that money for rent in addition to keeping his employees on payroll for the time being.

As grateful as he is for the paycheck protection program, he also said he’s unhappy with the federal government for another decision – the $600 increase in unemployment benefits during the pandemic crisis.

“The federal government came in with this huge CARES Act, so basically I got a bunch of money to put all of my people on payroll … and they’re making more money on unemployment,” he said. “(Employees) making $250 or $350 a week, and they’re making $850 now, so you can see the problem I have.

“It’s been difficult – literally I have had to match what they were making on unemployment, which is not what it was designed to do, it’s designed to match their salary,” he said.

It’s worth noting that the $600 unemployment benefit increase was designed to match the salary of an average worker, and Stew acknowledged it was supposed to help.

“It’s kind of like good intentions, bad execution,” he said. “That $600 has really screwed up a lot of us who took the PPE money. That’s my complaint right now is the federal government cannot keep adding to this unemployment paycheck because it disincentives anybody even when we do get the green light.”

Right now, it’s certainly unclear whether or not that will actually happen. The increase in unemployment benefits runs out at the end of July. If Stew’s business is allowed to reopen before that, then it’s true there could be an incentive for some workers to continue collecting unemployment benefits. State law indicated that those collecting unemployment cannot refuse “suitable” work, but workers who can prove they are in a higher-risk category or live with someone who does have some leeway in refusing to return to work.

In a “frequently asked questions” sheet posted to the California Employment Department’s website, the state said individuals will continue to qualify for unemployment benefits if they “choose to stay at home from work due to underlying health conditions and concerns about exposure to the virus.”

But again, the increased unemployment benefits only last until July 31, meaning the incentive to stay home will be temporary.

Still, it’s something that Stew thinks about.

Another concern that he said weighs on his mind is the threat of businesses being shut down again.

If businesses are allowed to reopen and then are shut down again, it could “crush a small business with no real explanation other than we’re nonessential,” Stew said. “What does that mean? I mean, I’m very essential to everyone who walks in that door. I probably never have any more than five or six people in my space.”

Still, asked if he’s concerned about a second wave of infections caused by businesses reopening and gatherings allowed to continue, Stew said he’s not worried at all.

“I’m not afraid of a second wave, because the first wave was nonexistent,” he said.

Stew is correct that the impacts in Temecula have been limited. No deaths have been reported in Temecula during the pandemic crisis, at all. But Temecula also fell under California’s statewide stay-home order before the virus had a chance to take hold in Riverside County.

Stew said he doesn’t buy that argument.

“I believe that all the models that they’re using were based on a high-density population like New York City, and that’s why it’s never transpired in California,” Stew said. “I believe the government – the state, the county and even the federal (government) modeled this thing wrong, and I believe there’s so much more damage that took place other than human life and I know businesses right now that will not open back up just because they were completely decimated. Three months ago, we had the lowest unemployment in history, we were on track to probably a $1, $2 or $3 billion economy here in Temecula and that’s all been stopped, and even when we reopen it’s gonna be a slow roll to normalcy.”

Will Fritz can be reached by email at wfritz@reedermedia.com.