One Year Later: BUSINESS OF ADAPTING

Local businesses had to adjust their business practices quickly and often to have a chance of surviving during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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With the spread of COVID-19, on March 19, 2020, Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an executive stay at home order throughout the state to preserve public health and safety and to ensure the healthcare system could serve everyone and flatten the curve on the fast spreading virus.

Nearly everything stopped.

People were ordered to stay at home except for essential service providers. Local highways were empty, groceries store shelfs emptied as quickly as they could stock supplies, and most businesses shut their doors completely. Schools around the state, closed their doors in in-person learning beginning March 13, 2020. This came a month after San Diego County declared a local health emergency on Feb. 14, 2020.

During the height of the pandemic over the past year, the governor announced a second stay at home order that took effect on Dec. 3, 2020, in order to lower the curve of the spread of COVID-19 over the holiday season, for regions with less than 15% ICU availability. The governor lifted the second order on Jan. 25, after seeing a flattening of the curve. By August 2020, the governor unveiled California’s four-colored tier system. San Diego County was able to move from the Purple Tier to the less restrictive Red Tier on March 16. This allowed many businesses to open their doors again, and many for the first time since the first stay-at-home order. Restaurants, movie theaters, museums, zoos and aquariums could begin resuming indoor operations at 25% capacity. Retail can increase indoor operations at 50% capacity, gyms and fitness centers at 10% capacity.

With vaccines on the rollout, the San Diego County reached one million vaccinations on March 5, with nearly 16 percent of San Diegans age 16 and older fully immunized, and 23.1% receiving at least one dose of the two-dose regimens.

The county’s small businesses have been hit hard during the past year, with hundreds hanging in the balance. Many businesses have remained closed temporarily or permanently. Others have spent thousands of dollars in making their businesses COVID-19 safe, and though the county is now in the red tier, many businesses are deciding not to move towards indoor activities.

Courtesy photo

Brew Coffee Spot is one business that has decided not to open its doors to in-person dining. Brew Coffee Spot is a craft coffee shop, that roasts its own Brew Love coffee beans. A local independent small business in La Mesa, its craft nature ventures into environmental responsibility. It does this by offering ceramic cups and glassware for dine in, it serves its food on real plates and silverware, its cups, straws and to-go silverware are made from plants, which are 100% compostable.

Brew Coffee Spot co-owner Joe Paraiso said 2020 started out great, with record months from January to the March shutdown.

“We were very hopeful that it was going to be our breakthrough year with the way things were going,” said Paraiso. “All the promotion and work we put in years before were finally starting to pay some dividends. Then the pandemic hit and that was a big blow.”

Paraiso said the pandemic cast a “huge shadow of uncertainty” for its future. He said like most businesses, Brew Coffee shut its doors completely, and when allowed to reopen, did so very cautiously.

“We had to rearrange everything,” he said. “We had pretty much modified our business to be only to-go orders.”

Paraiso said fortunately, its point of sales system Clover, allowed them to take orders through its own app and online. He said if that had not happened, he believes the shop would have lost even more business than it has already.

“Sales started out okay because people were kind of excited to come back to the coffee shop,” he said. “When I say okay, I mean it was about 50% of what our sales used to be. Weekends being the busiest, those sales cut in half. It was really tough.”

Paraiso said the shop adjusted, changed hours, created shorter shifts for staff. He said their biggest concern was losing all their staff.

“We put a lot of time into training our staff and finding great staff. We really did not want to lose them,” he said. “We reduced hours, but kept a lot of them on, and then started looking for ways to find help and aid. That was also a new territory that we had to venture in to.”

Paraiso said they were able to get help through the first round of Paycheck Protection Program. He said it took a while, but eventually they got help. He said that they applied for as many grants as possible from local to federal but did not receive most of them. He said the second round of PPP received a couple of months ago was extremely helpful, and he utilized all the money to keep his payroll going.

“It is scary to see it dwindle away as fast as it does,” said Paraiso. “In a business like ours, we have about 18 to 20 employees. We lost about three employees. One might be coming back soon. Right now, we have 18. We retained most of them. A few went back home because they were college students.”

Paraiso said shaving off hours that were not productive and retaining efficiency helped make sure they were not just throwing away money.

“It has been tough, but I think we have done a fairly good job of balancing that line,” he said. “But it has been helpful for the employees to just have a job. People have been very generous with tipping, so we are appreciative of that as well. I know the people that have kept their jobs are happy with that. Since then, we have been riding on that money and what sales we have. I am just trying to stay afloat until we can open normally again.”

Paraiso said now in the red tier, opening indoors at 25% is too much work. He said he realizes that people want to come in and sit down, but the time, effort and money it would take to make it happen would damage the business more at this point rather than help.

“When we do open, we want to open it for safety for our employees and our guests,” he said. “Hopefully, in a couple of months, we can open up inside again at least at 75% capacity. But we do not want to even do that until all our employees are vaccinated. Some of them have had their first round of the vaccine. Myself, our manager, my partner and my wife had our first shots and are now waiting for the second shot.”

Fortunately, Brew Coffee already had an outdoor seating area, so people can order and enjoy sitting outdoors, said Paraiso. He said he has seen many businesses struggling to try to create outdoor seating with difficulty, complications, and having to spend a lot of money.

Sitting facing Lake Murray Boulevard., Paraiso said its huge parking lot is essential to the business. On the first Saturday of every month, Brew Coffee holds a market created to bring n vendors that do not necessarily have storefronts. He partnered the once a month market with the coffee shop in December 2019. The market had been operating for several months before the first shutdown.

“It is similar to a farmer’s market, but it is more about products,” said Paraiso. “Not just food and produce. It is like a small mall that we open. It has been great. It has allowed these other businesses another avenue to sell during COVID. It is outdoors, so we have everybody wear a mask and socially distance. We are happy that our vendors have been great and the other farmer’s markets are very difficult to get in to. This market has many people that are on waiting lists, gives them a place to sell and promote their businesses.”

Paraiso said the best case scenario is people come, grab a cup of coffee and walk around the market. He said the market concept began with a customer, who became a great friend. Tara Van Sickle helped create and promote the market.

“She has been great, and she is the contact for the market as well,” he said. “She is awesome and has a lot of energy. She has been wonderful, gets a lot of vendors in, and all the vendors have done really well, so we are really happy about that.”

Paraiso said during the past year, when it comes to the county and the state, he does not believe that they have been too strict, and his understanding is they are following guidelines passed down by the CDC.

“I definitely listen to and respect what the scientists and doctors say,” said Paraiso. “I have lost some friends to COVID. I have seen the devastation that is had had on a lot of people. I have had relatives and family members infected. Most of them have come out okay from it, one of my nieces still has some respiratory issues. It is scary. Fortunately, my wife and our three children have not contracted it. We are very thankful for that. We have just tried to follow the guidelines. It has worked for us so far.”

Get Doll’d Up Hair Salon is a full service hair salon in Lakeside,

Owner Bobbie Bockler said before the pandemic hit, she previously had four stylists, but due to the pandemic, she is now running the shop solo.

“That’s okay though,” she said. “I turned the extra space into a boutique, so I now offer trendy jewelry, accessories, scarfs, t-shirts, purses and all kinds of fun goodies. I have hair products available.”

Get Doll’d Up does hair coloring from natural highlights to fun fashion color, hair extensions, hair cutting, deep conditioning and smoothing treatments. Bockler has been a hair stylist for 17 years, and her shop has is going on its seventh year in business.

Bockler said after the first shutdown, it started with her cancelling all her appointments for that day and moving forward cancelling appointments for the next couple of months.

“It was very hard for me because my appointment schedule fills up fast, so I book out a month or two,” she said. “Thankfully, everyone was pretty understanding due to the circumstances. It has been interesting, a bit challenging. There are some clients that I have not seen or heard from since the closure, but for the most part, I have an incredibly supportive client following. I am extremely grateful for that.”

Bockler has shut down completely three times since the pandemic began, with the salon taking a huge hit.

“I still had to pay for the building, electricity and everything else that comes along with owning your own business while we were closed,” she said. “That was a little rough, but when I was able to reopen, a few times here and there for short periods of time, I had pretty good support during that.”

Bockler said she believes that the state and county restriction was unfair to the salon industry.

“We are one of the cleanest industries there are,” she said. “We have to clean and sanitize every single tool between each client. I only take one client at a time and every single client receives a clean bag with sanitized tools, capes and towels. I allow myself about 45 minutes in between clients to clean the entire salon. I do not think it was fair to close salons. Wal-Mart has more concerns than a salon would, just because everyone is touching everything.”

Bockler said moving forward, she hopes everyone can work together to figure ways to support each other with understanding and compassion.

“Especially towards small businesses,” she said. “I am extremely passionate about the community, shopping local and supporting each other. As far as the salon, I just hope that we can stay open and do everything that I can to make sure every client feels safe in a clean environment. Moving forward, it is just myself, my boutique and everything is by appointment only. Even a personal shopping experience in the boutique. That way everyone can feel safe and be in a clean environment.”

Singing Hill Memorial Park is in the Dehesa Valley of El Cajon. General Manager Scott Prine said the complete lockdown inherently created many problems because people were not allowed or did not feel comfortable going onto the property. Prine said as a business, it stopped proactively work with clients in homes, and stopped all its preplanning group sessions at senior centers, churches, or any setting that allowed them to talk to as many people as possible.

“That part of the business just stopped,” he said.

Prine said as far as burials and normal day to day activities at the cemetery, it allowed them to embrace the many technologies available that they had never used before. He said he feels after a year, the staff can help individuals across a spectrum of virtual platforms without the need for clients to step on the property. “That was a benefit of the lockdown,” he said.

As an essential business, Singing Hills could not shut down. Prine said the biggest challenges in the beginning was mortuaries trying to conduct business, as they had the loved ones in their care.

“Families wanted to go into the mortuaries,” said Prine. “Some mortuaries had restrictions, so everything had to be done by email, so that was a logistical problem for us because it presented delays. For families to say they lost a loved one today on Monday, and would like to have a service on Thursday, those timelines were affected by the mortuaries who were trying to stay safe, keep family safe and serve the community.”

Prine said for him, he adapted. One of the first things he did was purchase relays for wireless and made nearly the entire cemetery wi-fi enabled.

“We offered Zoom services, so the family did not actually have to be here,” he said. “We would record the service, they could watch it live, and we would provide a recording. This turned our really nice because there are a huge number of family members that live out of state, country, that under normal circumstances would never have been able to be at the service.”

Prine said Zoom gave families the ability to watch the service, use the chat feature and give their condolences from their home computer, no matter where they were located.

“I plan on keeping the Zoom services,” he said. “It has given such a warm welcome to the families. I have no intention of stopping it, although I will probably need to invest in a better camera. Now I use a tripod with an iPad. And Zoom is good live, but when it records it, it compresses it. It serves their needs now, but I believe that if we are making something to preserve for the family, I feel obligated to give them the best quality that we can.”

Prine said Zoom is also helpful in other services Singing Hills offers, such as preplanning.

“We had a huge increase of people preplanning feeling lie, ‘If not now, when?’” he said. “We have a whole network engaged in community outreach and educational parts of preplanning.”

He said the use of technology allows people from home to have Zoom meetings where they can share screens, go over contracts, burial paperwork, and create memorials. He said this also allows more people in the families that want to participate in the decision making process. Prine said the ability to give virtual tours of the cemetery is an essential part of this process.

“At Singing Hills, you almost must be on the property to appreciate where we are in El Cajon, and the mountain backdrop to us. We wanted to make sure that families got that feel, as much as possible,” he said.

Singing Hills also incorporated DocuSign, another comfort level for families to sign any documents for burial, preplanning, said Prine. “That gave us another tool to be able to work with the families.”

Prine said in the beginning, funerals were limited to six family members, six feet apart, and wearing mask. He said this has slowly shifted to mostly social distancing.

“That allowed us to open up for more guests,” he said. “We kept a core chair and canopy for the immediate family, but we would talk to the families and after the service was over, if they minded if we circle through people in a line, keeping social distance, so they could come up to the casket and pay their respects. Now, nothing has really changed. We go out and let them know that we have to follow the County’s guidelines, and everybody has been receptive to that.”

Nancy Kaufhold, Singing Hills pre planning advisor said she has worked both in preplanning final arrangements and at need arrangements.

“I have worked with families, in the office and in the cemetery lawn, arranging the burials, working hand in hand with local mortuaries,” she said.

Kaufhold said the cemetery was opened and dedicated in 1996. She said it is called a memorial park because it is more than a cemetery, it is an experience. “It is more like a nature park than a cemetery. It is just beautiful,” she said.

Kaufhold said business goes on as usual because deaths occur.

“Mortuaries deliver the people or ashes, or sometimes family bring in the ashes,” she said. “All of the protocols are in place. We wear our masks, social distance, the deaths/sites are sanitized between each visit. There is a once a week thorough sanitizing. Our golf carts we use for elderly or disable persons are socially distanced.”

Kaufhold said the cemetery has been busier since the beginning of the pandemic, especially in preplanning.

“The pandemic is making people aware and are thinking about getting their arrangements made ahead of time,” she said. “It brought attention that this is just a fact of life and you can go anytime. Not that you are going to, but it gives peace of mind.”

Robert’s Haircut and Shaves in Alpine, owned by brothers Robert and Adam Adam celebrates its third year in business in July. Robert’s provides haircuts, hair color for men, beard trimming, shaves, facials and eyebrow threading. Before the shutdown, Robert’s had seven employees.

“When we reopened, we went back to me and my brother who started the business,” said Adam Adam. “We lost all of our employees, and we have had to hire new employees.”

Now at 25% capacity, he said the shop is still going strong seven days a week, but that business is not the same. He said being in the red tier it is slowly getting better as people adjust and trying to get back to normal.

“I feel that the county could have done things differently, but they did a good job. But I think they could have done better,” he said.

San Diego East County Chamber of Commerce President & CEO Rick Wilson said there was no tool kit for a pandemic like this. He said it was incredibly challenging for all chambers when the first shutdowns hit, knowing that it immediately impacted the business sector.

“By May, we could do things with Zoom, we were already holding board meetings virtually. So, for businesses, we started pushing out Shop East County campaign, getting people to purchase locally when they can,” he said. “Three to four times a week we were blasting out to our membership and created a database of 2,500 businesses in East County that we were shooting out all of the information from the state about COVID-19, state grants, Small Business Administration loan opportunities, city grants, county grants.”

Wilson said all the chambers became a huge resource for businesses during the pandemic, providing information on grants available, even raising funds for businesses impacted by the La Mesa riots.

“During the pandemic, we tried as best as we could to roll up our sleeves, dive in anywhere and everywhere we can to try and help businesses through these crazy, tough times,” he said. “It really worked. Over the pandemic, we lost about 100 members where we easily could have lost several hundred because everyone did not know what was going to happen. You cannot blame them. They are wondering financially if they would have enough money next month to stay open, to pay for their own home. But what we saw was them seeing value in the chamber. We partnered with other chambers doing virtual mixers to bring everyone together. We continue to do all this now with the great anticipation to be able to get back to being able to do some in-person events.”

Wilson said it is not just the businesses affected by the pandemic, but the entire community faced problems, homelessness grew, so it was important to come together and do anything that would make a difference. He said the county of San Diego has been great working with.

“All they really care about is helping and that is what we are all trying to do,” said Wilson. “In the bigger picture it is like, ‘A rising tide lifts all boats,’ so whether they are a chamber member or not, who really cares. We are trying to help everybody so that we can all get back on our feet and get back to whatever the new normal will be. That takes all of us doing our part.”

One Year Later: BUSINESS OF ADAPTING