Optimism meets uncertainty as businesses reopen
Despite an uptick in hospitalizations due to COVID-19, life seems to be returning to Santa Barbara County with locals and a trickle of visitors beginning to leave their homes as the county moves into Stage 3 of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s “Resilience Roadmap.”
Under Stage 3, wineries and bars, gyms, hotels, zoos and museums and more have received the greenlight to reopen, and restaurants have been able to expand their capacity by offering more outdoor seating options.
Despite the uncertainty that has become all too familiar during the COVID-19 pandemic, it seems Stage 3 has finally offered a clearer view of what an open economy during the health crisis will look like.
“We as the chamber felt that we were getting good accurate information to push out to businesses on how they could plan for reopening, when they could expect their reopening date and could be ready to reopen. We feel like everyone has been super motivated to comply so that their livelihoods could be reinstated but without putting lives at stake,” said Kristen Miller, who will be taking over as CEO for the combined Santa Barbara and Goleta Chambers of Commerce July 1.
Businesses that have chosen to reopen have adapted to new strict social distancing guidelines, especially those that have a high number of “touch-points.” Businesses have had to find ways to pace their customers to keep space between them, use personal protective equipment (PPE) and minimize opportunities for contact.
“It’s not the simplest thing in the world, but businesses have been so motivated because of having lost their incomes and their ability to fulfill their life dreams of having a business open to the public. The motivation and enthusiasm is so high that it’s hard work, but I don’t think it was that difficult,” said Ms. Miller.
In Solvang, the Chamber of Commerce and City Council have been working with the business community since March to get them the proper personal protective and cleaning equipment. Many small merchants were not used to buying anything more intense than Windex, and the Solvang Chamber of Commerce has worked to connect them with the proper suppliers with an emphasis on local producers.
“At a time when it’s important to use PPE protection, are we making sure we’re buying it local? Are we buying our sanitizer local from Buellton, from other sources that are making it local? We keep everyone in the loop,” said Tracy Beard, CEO of the Solvang chamber. “Everybody pivoted very well in this community to make sure that we knew how to go buy (PPE) and that we knew how to use it. That’s one of the things with this chamber. We’ve been very on top of it from the beginning. We never had a day off from work. We were probably working 10 hours a day from the day this started.”
In addition to communicating the details of the Reopening In Safe Environment, or RISE, Guide, cities and chambers have been providing a variety of loans to small businesses as well as assisting in the processing of PPP Loans. In Solvang, the chamber has assisted almost 180 clients with PPP loans and secured $5,000 microloans for 100 Solvang businesses.
“Our city has been very generous to the business community,” said Ms. Beard.
A major step in moving to Stage 3 for Santa Barbara has been sealing State Street off traffic from Haley Street to Sola Street, effectively turning the street into a promenade. The move has allowed businesses in the area to move outdoor seating into the street, and it has been a hit with the city from day one.
“It’s great. I think everyone from customers to the business owners themselves have been pleased with that adaptation,” said Ms. Miller.
While there has been some concern over social distancing along the new promenade, Ms. Miller said businesses have enthusiastically complied with safety protocols and relied on individuals who know they are at risk or know they are connected to people who are at risk to monitor themselves.
“If you’re a part of the group that can walk down State Street and can abide by the rules that it’s OK for you to be out, then you’re usually the ones who are out. If you are not, then you should stay home, and I think people do. The biggest concern is: Is it 100% safe for every single person? No, and those people will continue to not be able to enjoy going out in the way some people can. I’m not saying that’s a great thing, but we still have the ability to still keep people safe. If you can’t go out, you can’t go out yet,” said Ms. Miller.
While the chance to open their doors and invite customers has been a welcome change for Santa Barbara businesses, it remains to be seen if the outdoor seating will bring in enough sales to match operating at full capacity.
Solvang too has closed a section of its main street, shutting off two blocks of Copenhagen Drive and socially distancing tables, wine tasting areas and more. The city has also moved its farmers market into the area.
As with Santa Barbara, it remains unclear what effect the street closure will have on the recovery of the local economy.
“We see small parts of customers returning, but I think because we are a tourist community, we don’t have the tourism to meet the sales. I think we’re at 50% less tourism at this point,” said Ms. Beard.
Despite the lingering uncertainty, businesses that have reopened are optimistic about the future as cities and chambers work hard to parse out next steps.
“We’re very aware that there are changes going on right now in terms of the number of positives tests, of new cases being identified etc., but we are working diligently with the county,” said Ms. Miller. “We just had a meeting yesterday to go over those numbers so we don’t overreact or underreact.
“In other words, the Public Health Department has the ability now to trace where cases are coming from, and therefore the business community can react appropriately. We are not seeing this coming from opening up to visitors or opening up restaurants.
“We’re able to constantly monitor where the changes are coming from and make sure we’re staying vigilant, and our adaptations, as we understand, have worked.”