‘They’re ripping us apart’: Small business operators furious…

small biz

Many Bay Area small businesses barely survived the first shutdown in March, only to go under during the summer when California’s watch list system imposed another round of mandated closures.

Now, five Bay Area counties are voluntarily adopting the state’s new stay-at-home order early, and will adopt some of the same restrictions as March: Restaurants must close outdoor dining and only offer takeout and delivery, and personal care services such as hair salons, nail salons and massage studios must shut down entirely.

Naturally, surviving business owners are irate.

“I’ve been walking around the city nonstop talking to small businesses owners and every story is sadder than the next,” said Rory Cox, the founder of the newly-formed San Francisco Small Business Alliance. “Everyone is like, ‘I wake up every day and I don’t know how much longer I can do this. I had 60 employees but now all I have is six, or now it’s only me.’ These are family businesses, these are moms and dads, brothers and sisters. I feel firmly we’re the backbone of the city. And they’re destroying us, they’re ripping us apart, they’re tearing out the heart and soul of the city.”

“I’m most frustrated by the level of investment and commitment my teams and I have made to safety, sanitation, distancing and the like, only to be rewarded by this shutdown,” Don Berger, the owner of Sport Clips Barbershops’ three locations in the East Bay, wrote in an email. “We’ve worked diligently to install new protocols and spent thousands of dollars on supplies and training. We’ve not ONE known virus outbreak in our business, yet, we must close.”

SFGATE heard from many small business owners impacted by the shutdown, and several common themes emerged. Here’s what small businesses are thinking as they prepare to close once again, and for too many of them, for good. (Some email responses have been lightly edited for clarity.)

People want evidence their businesses are actually contributing to the spread of the virus

This question came up during Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Thursday press conference announcing the new stay-at-home framework, but he was highly evasive.

On two separate occasions, reporters asked the governor and California Health and Human Services Director Dr. Mark Ghaly to provide hard data showing activities like outdoor dining and hair salons are increasing the spread of the coronavirus and would not just encourage more at-home gatherings. Neither directly answered the question, and instead offered responses along the lines of, “We want to diminish the amount of mixing.”

The lack of data and transparency is infuriating for so many.

“There does seem to be some evidence that indoor dining may pose a risk to some people,” wrote Tony Granieri, owner of the Oakland restaurants Brotzeit Lokal and the now-shuttered Magpie. “That said, there is no conclusive evidence that outdoor dining does. It actually seems these sorts of Draconian measures are pushing people into unsafe situations in private homes where safety guidelines cannot be guaranteed, enforced or even expected.”

“We constantly hear that the spread is occurring through private parties and yet we small business owners, doing everything we can to uphold the health standards, are being forced to cut staff and close down without any evidence that we are contributing to the spread,” added Sean Sullivan, owner of the Port Bar, the last LGBT bar still open in Oakland.

Barbershops and hair salons feel the same way, as do movie theaters.

“One of the most frustrating parts is you listen to any state or county press conference where they present reams and reams of data, and hear about how they’re data driven, how many people tested positive, how many people are in the hospital, and that they’re contact tracing,” said Julian Skinner, owner of The Style Bar, a hair salon in Greenbrae. “But when you ask why some sectors are closed and others open, we get general answers back and not data answers.”

“As far as movie theaters go, most in the U.S. and internationally are open,” wrote Dave Corkill, owner of Cinema West, the largest independent chain of movie theatres in Northern California. “There hasn’t been a single COVID spread traced to a movie theater (yes, that’s right — not a single one) globally, yet in the face of that evidence, California and New York have essentially turned our business upside down through closure orders.”

With no federal help on the way just before the holidays, people are scared they may close for good

Congress is showing no signs of passing a new COVID relief bill anytime soon, and that uncertainty is crippling.

“Many restaurants are in a similar if not worse position,” wrote Denica Freitas, owner of the four Denica’s Real Food Kitchen locations across the East Bay.  “Forced to reduce staff at the worst time.  Forced to shift to takeout only at a time when we were counting on the holiday increase to help us get through the rest of the year. Leaving so many people unemployed right at the holidays, it is truly heartbreaking.”

Skinner said his hair salon received a PPP loan in the spring, but all that money is long gone now.

“The PPP covered eight weeks and certainly helped us open our doors in September, but that money is gone, our credit lines gone, our personal savings are gone,” he said. “We’ve been scraping by but nothing can make up for months of losses by closures. I don’t know what we will do. It looks like we’ll have to be closed until January, but we have no way to pay any of our bills moving forward unless we get aid. We haven’t been open long enough to build reserves for another closure.”

Garth Gilmour, owner of QOVO Solutions, Inc., a home wireless and security provider, was particularly dejected.

“In two weeks I will lay off all of my employees after having exhausted PPP and SBA loans but at least I will have tried to achieve the no-longer-achievable American dream,” he wrote.

To say that people are incensed with California’s leaders would be an understatement

Gilmour’s business is on the ropes, and he had a lot to say about Newsom, whose now-infamous rule-breaking visit to The French Laundry has made him a villain in the eyes of many.

“We have a governor, a state and local government that is doing everything possible to put us out of business,” Gilmour wrote. “We employ people who depend on us for an income and at least some sort of security and we in turn depend on them to do their jobs and help us stay in business. We have governors and local officials that espouse rules that they don’t follow. None of them are dependent on a paycheck from a small business and none of them live paycheck to paycheck but a vast majority of California does and it’s that vast majority of California that pays income taxes, sales taxes and votes.”

“The only businesses that win in these close downs are the big ones. Amazon, Safeway, Taco Bell, etc,” wrote Granieri. “Seems like maybe they’re trying to squeeze the little guys out.”

Danielle Rabkin owns CrossFit Golden Gate, a small fitness center in San Francisco, and directed her ire towards local officials at the San Francisco Department of Public Helath who chose to adopt the stay-at-home order despite the state projecting the Bay Area would be the last region that needs to shut down.

“My big question is, why does SFDPH feel they need to be more restrictive than the California DPH?” she asked. “Why put people out of work and shut down businesses when according to Newsom we had two-to-three more weeks [until] the Bay Area hit the ICU criteria to shut down? There is no extra compensation offered, why should the feds bail us out when we meet state criteria to reopen? SFDPH is behaving criminally, this IS SO WRONG. They are leveling this city.”

Cox, a personal trainer in the city, launched the San Francisco Small Business Alliance in response to the pandemic and the city’s rules for small businesses. His alliance currently has over 200 members, and he expects more will join amidst this third shutdown.

He’s talked to several small business owners and employees, and feels the city has been uniquely deleterious in its COVID response.

“There’s a reason we have higher unemployment and more shuttered businesses than other cities,” he said, citing the city’s prolonged closure orders and unemployment figures. “No one at city leadership making decisions has run a business, so they don’t fully understand it, they don’t grasp it. They haven’t missed a paycheck and they’ve given themselves raises through this. When it’s time to vote, the way they’ve responded to this is going to be clear. There are going to be shifts, people are frustrated. I’ve talked to so many people who consider themselves liberal and progressive, and lump me in with that group, that are frustrated.”

Newsom has announced intentions to give new state tax credits and relief grants to small businesses during the new stay-at-home order, but Cox laughed the proposal off.

“He says he’s going to give help to small businesses, but has expanded it to cultural institutions, non-profits and a bunch of other groups, so what, are we all going to get like 11 dollars?” he said. “It’s like come on man. You can’t expect us to shut down and not help us.”

Some people are quickly losing hope

Joe Cappelletti owns The Moby Dick Bar in the Castro and hasn’t been open for in-person service since the start of the pandemic.

“We have used most of our money getting to this point and in order to stay around we need to rely on our GoFundMe page and grants if we can find them,” he wrote. “Another loan is out of the question because we are up to our elbows in debt from the first round of loans. So we are worried.”

“We have basically been left with no options and essentially no hope for the future,” wrote Robert Carroll, the owner of the bar Sodini’s in Redwood City. “We understand COVID-19 is serious, and dangerous, however in this scenario it’s not only dangerous to our health, but our financial and mental wellbeing as well.  People need to decide for themselves what risks to take, we don’t take risks at Sodini’s, we insist on masks and distancing, all we want is a CHANCE to maintain our business. If you’ve never had a dream taken away and there’s nothing you can do about it, it’s the worst feeling in the world.”