Customers Dwindle, Doors Close as Bay Area Small Businesses Grapple With Coronavirus Crisis

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Ajmal Numan wears gloves to protect himself from the coronavirus as he works the counter at his convenience store, Market One, on March 16, 2020. The store can remain open under the new shelter-in-place order, but business has dried up, he said. (Farida Jhabvala Romero/KQED)

For 12 years, Claudia Ruiz has sold sparkly party gowns and planned quinceañera celebrations and weddings for clients from her store in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood.

But on Monday, hours after officials in Alameda and five other Bay Area counties ordered millions of residents to stay at home as much as possible, Ruiz grappled with the prospect of having to shutter her small business for weeks.

As confirmed coronavirus cases began to swell in the region and local and state officials issued increasingly tight restrictions on gatherings, Ruiz’s clients started canceling their party plans. Her business has taken a nosedive, she said.

“For me, it’s quite worrying,” said Ruiz, 53. “Business hasn’t been good, and now, we have to close. What are we going to do?”

Under shelter-in-place orders aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus, only “essential” businesses such as grocery stores, pharmacies and gas stations may remain open. All other businesses must cease operations until at least April 7. That includes Ruiz’s Frydas International Design, where the counters overflow with bouquets of fabric flowers and mannequins display ornate, sequined dresses.

Claudia Ruiz works at her clothing store in Oakland on March 16, 2020. Ruiz's business must cease operations under new shelter-in-place restrictions in Alameda County and five other Bay Area counties.
Claudia Ruiz works at her clothing store in Oakland on March 16, 2020. Ruiz's business must cease operations under new shelter-in-place restrictions in Alameda County and five other Bay Area counties. (Farida Jhabvala Romero/KQED)

The directives, among the strictest responses in the U.S. to COVID-19, are in effect in Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties. Nearby, Santa Cruz County also announced similar restrictions, while Sonoma County plans to require residents to shelter in their homes.

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Oakland City Councilman Dan Kalb urged businesses and employees who might be financially hurt to remember that the orders are in place to protect the public’s health and safety.

“There really isn't any alternative,” said Kalb, shortly after announcing the measures with Mayor Libby Schaaf and other elected city officials. “If we don't succeed and reduce the spread of this serious virus, the impact to businesses and everybody else will be much greater and much more profound.”

Small business owners with tight profit margins wondered how they would survive the restrictions and pay their bills — both at work and at home — through this period.

Many worry they’ll have no customers, even if they are allowed to remain open, as foot traffic dwindles and transit riders vanish.

At Delicias Bakery on International Boulevard, owner Miguel Angel Casillas was trying to decipher from the news whether his business was considered essential and could remain open. He planned to spend Monday afternoon calling city officials to get answers.

Customers at Delicias Bakery watch news about COVID-19 on March 16, 2020. The bakery's owner, Miguel Angel Casillas, worries his business will lose money, even if it can stay open under the new restrictions. (Farida Jhabvala Romero/KQED)

“We are not sure what’s going to happen,” said Casillas, as Central American day laborers and other regulars stood in line to buy sweet bread, tamales and coffee. “But what’s certain is that there’s not going to be as many people on the streets. We are going to lose money.”

A few steps away from the Fruitvale BART station, the convenience store Market One has already seen a decline of about 80% in sales since last week, said owner Ajmal Numan.

The store’s clientele usually consists of commuters and students from a high school nearby that is now closed. Numan said he called an employee Monday morning to tell that person to take an unpaid week off, and he’s planning to cut hours even more.

“I might think of closing because there is no business, temporarily,” said Numan, 52, a father of four.

Numan is considering asking his shop’s landlord to accept reduced or delayed rent payments. But unlike other business owners nearby, Numan said he has some savings.

“I do have emergency funds, and I’ll most likely rely on that instead of going to a bank or the city or anybody else to ask for help,” said Numan, who is originally from Afghanistan. “I’m sure those loans are not going to be easy or quick.”

Low-interest state and federal loan programs are among the resources the city of Oakland has listed for small business owners experiencing revenue loss because of the COVID-19 health crisis. The city may also postpone business taxes and provide emergency assistance for residents to pay rent and utilities.

Tuesday, the U.S. Small Business Administration announced guidelines for small business loans of up to $2 million, which Gov. Gavin Newsom promoted during a press update on the coronavirus.

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Ruiz is worried about paying rent both at home and at her dress store, with no income while her business is closed. She doesn’t have any savings to rely on, she said.

“I know we have to do whatever is necessary for our health,” Ruiz said. “But this closure is going to affect small businesses like mine deeply.”

Ruiz said that before searching for government resources, she’ll ask her two adult daughters, whose jobs have not yet been affected, to help her make it through the next three weeks.

“We are really going to have to unite as a team, as a family,” she said.

Members of the public and business owners with questions about how the new restrictions apply to them may contact the Alameda County Public Health Department, at ncov@acgov.org or (510) 268-2101, said Councilman Kalb.