Jeff Pack
Staff Writer

It might be the unknown that is weighing most on the hearts and minds of many in the business community as they attempt to wade into uncharted territory pertaining to dealing with the effects COVID-19 will have on commerce.

On Friday, all the schools in Southern California were closed for varying amounts of time, cities and organizations began to release news of canceled public events, activities and even offices.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom asked Californians to postpone all nonessential gatherings through the end of March due to the coronavirus and even social gatherings where people can’t remain at least 6 feet apart.

The California Department of Public Health also suggested that gatherings of 250 people or more should be postponed or canceled.

So what do those suggestions and guidelines mean to small businesses like restaurants, retailers and hospitality companies?

It seems to leave them in unknown territory. If they choose to stay open and adhere to all the guidelines for providing a safe atmosphere to customers and clients, they may be faced with a slow market, since a lot of the public is opting to stay home and avoid crowds. 

If they choose to close their doors during the time period suggested by regional, state and federal governments, how can they afford to pay employees or even their rent?

Leah Di Bernardo, founder, and head chef at Extraordinary Artisan Table (E.A.T.) Marketplace in Old Town Temecula, said Friday, March 14 that she was trying to find some small business advocates to address that very issue.

“I honestly really want to get ahold of someone to do some advocacy work for small businesses with our landlords,” she said. “The landlords in town really need to be made aware that it doesn’t hurt them to keep us all in business.”

For the time being, she said, E.A.T. Marketplace was staying open and they were doing everything they can to make the eatery safe for employees and customers. 

That includes having hard conversations with customers that come in with symptoms such as coughs or sneezes. 

“We’re really concerned because we get a lot of people that come in with a compromised immune system,” Di Bernardo said. “We’re stepping up the sanitation very noticeably and working with guests and anyone who is coming in sick. We are having that conversation with them to please come again when you’re well and we are giving them a $5 gift card.”

They have changed the way they are serving customers as well. 

“It’s just about being conscientious and being cautious,” Di Bernardo said. “We’ve pulled everything back. You can’t grab silverware yourself or glass yourself or a straw yourself. Everything’s behind the counter. 

“We’re brainstorming to stay in business and to figure out how we can keep our staff working because we have a lot of single moms (on staff) and we have people who this is their only source of income. We are really dedicated to the team and doing everything we can and really just keeping people calm.”

As of Friday, March 13, Gabe Gonzalez of Baily’s Old Town and Baily’s Nightclub in Old Town Temecula, said he has noticed a slight dip in people coming into the restaurant after a big weekend a week earlier. 

“It’s a little tough to gauge because of the rain, which always impacts us a little bit negatively anyway,” he said. “Tough to get a true feel for it, but we’re definitely, definitely slower. And whether that’s because of the weather or the effects we’re seeing from the virus, probably a little too early to say for sure.”

Gonzalez said they intend to keep the restaurant and the nightclub open. 

“I’m probably gonna limit our normal operations a little bit in terms of max occupancy with that number 250 that keeps floating around,” he said. “We are going to limit, specifically in our nightclub, how many people are coming through the door at any given time. We’re going to cap the door at 250.”

Gonzalez said he understands that people are a little hesitant to head outside and be around large groups of people. 

“It’s a very personal decision, obviously, and if somebody is feeling uncomfortable with going out then I’m not going to try and tell somebody, “No, go out, do it,’” he said. “That’s for each person to decide. However, guests should know that we’re doing everything we can. We’ve always been a clean establishment and it’s always been something that’s important to us. It’s not just becoming important now, but we’re certainly increasing and ramping up our efforts to do everything we can to make the guests feel comfortable.”

As far as how the coronavirus is affecting business overall, Patrick Ellis, 

President/CEO of the Murrieta/Wildomar Chamber of Commerce said he sees how it is affecting three groups in particular. 

“Right now it’s like there are three different kinds of groups or camps of businesses,” Ellis said. “There’s a bunch of businesses right now that are just killing it. Costco, Sam’s Club, Target, Walmart, Walgreens. Anyone who sells toilet paper, paper towels, water, that kind of stuff. They’re just killing it right now. 

“There’s the other camp which is being affected right away,” he said. “The hospitality industry, the event-planning industry, hotels, event centers, party planners, weddings. They’re dying right now because everyone’s canceling or not booking stuff. They’re just hurting.”

Ellis told of a local event planner who closed his doors while he navigates the next few weeks and months. That, in turn, affected several independent contractors that work in conjunction with the event planner.

“You’ve got a third camp that is kind of in-between,’ Ellis said. “Some of the service industry, some smaller retail. That industry hasn’t seen it yet and is not exactly sure what is going to happen and are kind of afraid, but not sure.”

Ellis said he wasn’t sure how this was going to affect small businesses, but organizations like his are there to support them if need be. 

“Small businesses a little trickier because those are a little different and some of them just don’t know what their impact is going to be yet,” he said. “We’ll have to wait and see. There are organizations like ours that are going to do everything we can to help and promote and do what we can.”

Ellis said local businesses should be on the lookout for news and help that should be coming their way. 

“There’s going to be a lot of resources that we’ll be sharing in the next week or so,” he said. “The last two bills that are going to be passed today and Monday (should help). And then with what the President did today to businesses. Try to stay tuned for a lot to come.”

In the meantime, he said there are ways that consumers can help businesses stay afloat.

“We encourage people to go out to a lot of these places,” he said. “You may not want to go in and sit down and have a meal cause some people are afraid to, which I’m not afraid of, but some are. Go out and get a gift certificate and either give it to somebody or hold onto it. A month from now when you feel more confident in what’s going on, go and use it, then it’s not like you’re wasting money or losing money. You’re just making your purchase now for enjoyment later.”

Kimberly Davidson, Economic Development Director for the city of Wildomar is cautiously suggesting that businesses stay open if they can. 

“My suggestion would just be (to stay open) as long as you’re adhering to CDC and State of California standards and it is safe to do so, and it is safe for you and your employees,” she said. “I don’t want to tell anyone to do something that they don’t consider safe. But if you can stay open and you can continue conducting business, I would highly encourage businesses to do so because we, for a myriad of reasons, we can’t afford to just completely shut down the economy.”

As for which type of businesses will be affected most by the current state of affairs, Davidson wasn’t exactly sure. 

“That’s really hard to say because right now,” she said. “I don’t know about the longer-term effects, but right now the shorter-term effects, it might be more detrimental to chain (businesses) because they have a larger congregation area, they are going to have to close down. 

“If you’re a smaller mom and pop, you might be able to weather through this,” she said. “You might be the only one open. Whereas some of the larger national food chains might need to shut down. Right now we’re at 250. Who knows where that’s gonna end up in the next few days or weeks.”

Davidson suggested that small businesses, which are more easily adaptable to changing marketplaces, could adjust the way they are doing business by offering specials and making it easier for the consumer to access their products.

“I would encourage you to think about ways you can change your business strategy so that your services are safer for the public, change the way you do business, and adapt the way you do business,” she said. “What we saw during the recession was that a lot of the larger companies and some businesses that just refused to change their way of business, they’re the ones that buckled. We might be in that same scenario here. 

“I think we’re kind of seeing once again what we saw in the recession that people, businesses need to be agile and be forward-thinking of how they can continue doing business in a safe manner and still serve the public and their customers at the same time.”

Davidson lauded the move by SoCalGas to put out an announcement on Friday that they wouldn’t be shutting off anyone’s gas, even if they are behind on payment. 

“I think that’s a great example of a business taking that opportunity to change their business model for the time being to help accommodate what’s going on right now,” she said. “Anyone who can do that within the safety guidelines, I think that is going to really show that they’re part of the community.”

Di Bernardo and her team are working on ways to do just that, be more agile and serve their customers safely. She said they are instituting a curbside pickup option for customers in hopes of keeping business flowing through the restaurant. 

The wellbeing of her restaurant and employees are at the top of her mind. 

“I’m like, ‘Oh my God,’ if we’re doing $10,000 a day, we’re doing $5,000 a day now … I’m not going to send my whole staff home and ruin their lives,” she said. “If I have to like personally sacrifice my pay I will before I’ll do that to my team.”

Jeff Pack can be reached by email at jpack@reedermedia.com