The growing COVID-19 crisis and increasing restrictions established in an effort to curb the spread of the virus has reshaped everyday life on the West Side and changed the landscape of downtown business districts.
A number of businesses in Gustine and Newman were shuttered last week in the wake of Governor Newsom’s March 19 directive closing all non-essential businesses and telling California residents to stay home other than to tend to necessities such as grocery shopping or medical visits.
Even among those which remained open, business as usual was largely a thing of the past as businesses tried to continue serving their clients while limiting direct contact and implementing “social distancing.”
Some have started delivery service of their goods; others are asking customers to stay curbside and have their orders brought to them. Many are encouraging patrons to conduct business via email or telephone to avoid personal contact, and to use drop boxes for payments.
Across the board, the consensus was that few small businesses (whether open or closed) will escape the economic impacts of the pandemic.
Among the businesses ordered closed by the governor are hair and nail salons, bars, nightclubs and entertainment centers. Restaurants can remain open, but can only serve takeout meals or deliver to their customers.
“We’re all in big trouble,” said Danny Gray, who recently opened the Old Corner Bar in Newman. “Some of us have mortgage payments on properties. It is going to be tough.”
Gray said Friday he planned to open the bar for one final night before shutting down.
Business, he said, has been slow since the COVID-19 crisis hit home.
“It is not even worth opening, (with) my electrical bill and all that stuff,” Gray commented.
In Gustine, Robert and Jennifer Villalobos shut down their businesses - an antiques mall and a craft shop - after hearing the governor’s directive.
“It’s hurting us,” Robert Villalobos told Mattos Newspapers.
He, too, reported sagging sales in the days leading up to the ordered shutdown.
The antiques mall would typically draw anywhere from 20-40 shoppers a day, Villalobos said, but last week was down to three or four daily.
Merchants up and down Main Street are going to feel the economic burden, he predicted, even if they remain open.
“A lot of small town businesses are the mom and pops,” Villalobos reflected. “The restaurants are hurting. I feel bad for them.”
Michael Passarelli’s State Farm office in Newman remains open, though with recommendations that patrons do their business by phone or email.
“We are taking precautions but we want to be available to people. The Department of Insurance regulates us, and we are supposed to be available for servicing policies and taking claims and doing all that we do on a daily basis,” Passarelli commented.
Like other business owners, he is stressing that people should not come in if they are ill.
From his perspective as a Newman Chamber of Commerce official, Passarelli said, he anticipates businesses will face tough times going forward.
“A big concern is that when people start missing paychecks it is going to get really difficult on Main Street,” he reflected. “If you look up and down Main Street nobody has a high-margin business able to withstand too much of a drop in business.”
At Stephens & Borrelli, owner John Borrelli said precautions are being taken while accommodating clients and handling property management responsibilities.
He said he anticipates some renters will face financial challenges as the crisis evolves.
“I’m sure that we will have a few who have hard times but we will work through it,” Borrelli commented.
The crisis will also impact the real estate industry, Borrelli said.
“When people are not comfortable, they don’t make very many buying decisions,” he said. “We have some things in the pipeline. We will finish those up and see what happens.”
Local banks have implemented capacity limits to maintain social distancing guidelines, and have also reduced hours.
“We have to operate, but we have to operate safely, too,” said Debbie Lopes, branch manager of Tri Counties Bank in Gustine. “We want to do what we need to do for everybody to be safe.”
Lopes said customers have been understanding.
“Everybody understands what needs to happen,” she told Mattos Newspapers.
At Pizza Plus, co-owner Shaun Felber said customers are being encouraged to pay for their orders by phone to avoid exchange of cash on delivery and takeout orders.
Customers picking up food are encouraged to come in alone rather than in family groups, Felber noted.
“There are a lot of pickups, but we have been going toward delivery more,” Felber said. “It is a little slower than normal, but it is that way for everybody.”
He said rigorous sanitation is being conducted at the restaurant and at his State Farm Insurance office a block away.
“A lot of (insurance) agents are locking the doors, which is what I’m leaning toward,” he said Monday morning of the agency. Virtually all insurance transactions can be completed over the phone, by email or online, Felber pointed out.
He acknowledged that the evolving practices will mean changing established habits for many customers, especially seniors.
“We have a lot of older customers who like to come in and pay cash,” said Felber.
The Gustine Chamber of Commerce office is among those closed to the public, but Executive Director Vanessa Rogers said the organization is still doing everything it can to promote and support the local business community.
Rogers, who is working remotely, said she is using a variety of social media platforms to implore residents to support local businesses.
“We want to make sure that the community knows how the businesses are adapting to what is going on,” she explained. “They are doing their best to serve the community.”
Businesses have always stepped forward to support the community, Rogers added. “We have a community that relies on donations from all these businesses,” she pointed out. “It is time now for those companies to ask for the help.”
The City of Gustine is doing what it can to help businesses, City Manager Doug Dunford said.
The city this week launched a free delivery service to help bring restaurant meals to residents.
Volunteers and police officers will be making those deliveries, he explained. The purchaser must contact the restaurant to place the order and make payment, and the restaurant in turn will advise the city, which will dispatch an individual to pick up and deliver the food.
“We will pick it up, deliver it to the doorstep and leave,” Dunford said, emphasizing that no cash will change hands and there will be no physical contact with the recipient.
The service is available weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 4-8 p.m. inside the Gustine city limits.
The program helps bring revenue to local businesses, he said, and helps residents meet the “shelter at home” guidelines, reducing their exposure risk to the virus.
“We are trying to help the businesses and keep everybody home,” Dunford remarked. “We have some significant changes coming up in the way that citizens do things.”
He said eight restaurants are participating, including El Picosito, Kemp’s BBQ, Perry’s More than Pizza, Pizza Factory, Subway, Wolfsen’s, Texas Burger and Rise Up Nutrition.
Dunford said that six or seven deliveries were made Monday, the first day the program was in effect.
He said city volunteers will also assist Pioneer Drug with deliveries of pharmaceuticals if needed, but that the main emphasis is on the food deliveries.
Dunford said the city is also attempting to resurrect a senior outreach program under which volunteers touch base by telephone with participating seniors on a regular basis to check on their welfare.
While the governor’s directive covers the state as a whole, local officials have acknowledged that there is currently no law enforcement component to the guidelines.
Instead, officials are looking for voluntary compliance with the guidelines, supported by public education.
“We will educate (non-essential businesses which remain open) about the directive,” Dunford said. “
They could be subject to some type of penalties by the state later on, but we’re not going to force them to close. We will recommend that they close because of health and safety standards (and encourage them to make) the right decision.”
Gas stations, pharmacies, food providers, banks and laundromats are among the types of businesses that are deemed essential and can stay open, according to the governor’s website. Those which the directive ordered closed include dine-in restaurants, bars, nightclubs, entertainment venues, gyms and fitness studios, hair and nail salons and convention centers.
The crisis has also impacted public facilities. City offices in Newman and Gustine are closed to the public other than by appointment. Local library branches are also closed as part shutdowns in Stanislaus and Merced counties.