“It’s all a blur. I mean it’s slow motion. I can’t believe it’s only been the amount of time that it’s been. It feels like it’s been a month,” Pete Burnham, owner of the Lama Dog Taproom & Bottle Shop told the News-Press.
“It wasn’t an earthquake or a terrorist attack or a tornado. It didn’t happen all at once. We were reading about China and Korea and then next thing you know it’s here, but then it still took a little while and then all of a sudden it really happened quickly.”
Mr. Burnham echoed what many Santa Barbarans felt in the past week, as each day seems to bring a new emergency order responding to the spread of the novel coronavirus known as COVID-19.
“Everyday the circumstances are changing really rapidly and we’re all just trying to take it one day at a time I think. We’re only three days into the tip of the iceberg,” said David Potter, owner of Municipal Winemakers and the Potek Winery and Muni Wine tasting rooms in downtown Santa Barbara.
Speaking to the News-Press Thursday afternoon, it’s unlikely that either business owners realized how true their words were, as later that night, Gov. Gavin Newsom made a state-wide order, directing all California residents to stay inside their homes amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Fortunately, many businesses have already been preparing to close their storefronts for a little over a week, with state officials and city leaders officially ordering all bars, nightclubs, pubs, wineries and breweries throughout the county to close on Tuesday.
While many questions remain for Santa Barbara’s service industry, the community’s restaurateurs, winemakers, and bar owners aren’t sitting around and waiting for answers.
“We’re all using our keen entrepreneurial spirit to find ways we can do anything we can,” said Julia Mayer, co-owner of Dune Coffee Roasters.
“Despair is not helpful and it’s super not productive. What is productive is seeing people trying.”
While layoffs are inevitable, Ms. Mayer and other business owners are thinking outside the box to keep paychecks coming for employees.
At Dune Coffee Roasters, the team met on a Zoom call where Ms. Mayer told staff at the three locations that if anybody felt uncomfortable or didn’t want to be there, Dune would furlough them until further notice. Students and younger employees with more flexibility took the offer, leaving Dune with half of its 52 person staff.
“For us, fortunately we had that number come to us voluntarily, so we were not put into the position to take people out of the workforce who didn’t need their paychecks as of today,” said Ms. Mayer.
“For the people who are here, we’re being as creative as possible with all of the restrictions.”
Some, like Lama Dog, have been able to keep their staff, although at significantly reduced hours as they move to solely making sales out of their bottle shop.
“It’s far fewer but thankfully we’re able to keep people employed,” said Mr. Burnham.
Like many business owners, Ms. Mayer, Mr. Potter, and Mr. Burnham have looked online for a way to keep any revenue they can come in.
Municipal Winemakers has become a delivery business, said Mr. Potter.
“We’re taking calls and texts. We’ve got free shipping across the country and 20% off on the website,” Mr. Potter told the News-Press.
Dune Coffee Roasters is working to start delivering beans from Carpinteria to Goleta, and is now offering ordering on their website as well.
“You can drive up and pick up your beverages, so basically almost an interaction free experience,” said Ms. Mayer.
While Ms. Mayer and Mr. Potter began making preparations to change their business model earlier this week, other businesses have quickly followed suit.
On Thursday, Carlos Luna, owner of the Los Agaves restaurants, announced that the Milpas, De La Vina and Goleta locations will remain open for to-go, curbside service or delivery service only. The restaurant will offer a 15% discount on all orders and complimentary delivery to Santa Barbara and Goleta.
“Everything we do is built around bringing people together, and right now it’s clear that’s not safe,” said Mr. Luna. “So we’re doing what we know is the safest for all to help flatten the curve. We’re just hoping to help however we can.”
Unfortunately for many, these measures simply aren’t enough for business owners to be able to make their lease payments.
“I’m in this position where I’m paying a ton of money every month in rent, there’s now zero income through any of my retail locations, and I’m contractually bound. Basically it starts affecting me personally and my family and my house and all that sort of stuff. It’s a pretty scary situation,” said Mr. Potter.
“This is a full on disaster and help can’t come fast enough.”
Small businesses in Santa Barbara are looking for that help, not only from the community — which they say have been very supportive — but also from city and state leaders.
“I think what we as small businesses are looking for from our city is advocacy and leadership to other channels of the government that can have more of an impact, specifically to the State of California,” said Mr. Potter.
Mr. Potter said he hoped city officials would petition the California Insurance Commissioner to hold insurance companies to account for the many business interruption policies that exclude viral pandemics, much like the advocacy for fire victims after the Thomas Fire.
“I’m sure that’s going to require some sort of bailout to the insurance companies as well,” said Mr. Potter.
“Obviously the federal government is going to be bailing out big businesses, but it’s just a matter of how does that money find it’s way down to our mom and pops.”
Some business owners have called on the city to pass eviction protection for tenants impacted by the pandemic, which the city council will make a decision on Tuesday.
“That would be massive. It would save so many local businesses from having to deal with that as well at this time and be able to keep them above water,” said Mr. Burnham.
Ms. Mayer said the main thing the city can do is advocate for local business, meet with them, and ramp up their communication efforts to the level of the Thomas Fire days.
“There should be a nightly briefing even if there’s no information, because we’re asking all of our businesses to close down and we’re asking our community to basically stay where they are and not go to school and then we’re not hearing anything?
“The human brain needs to be relieved or else we all jump to conclusions when we don’t know,” she said. “Informed communities are less fearful, and we don’t need people to be afraid.”
As an industry that makes up 17% of the jobs in Santa Barbara County, Ms. Mayer said the service industry needs community leaders to show those displaced that they are not invisible.
“Every single person in this town is being impacted by this. Everybody in this country and in the world is being impacted by this,” she said. “In a way, it’s better because we will not have any choice but to work together to get through it. It’s the only answer. It’s not an isolated incident. It’s not like a hurricane.
“It’s happening everywhere so we all are going to have to respond together or else it’s not going to work.”