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Bay Area Florists Wilting Under Shelter-In-Place Restrictions

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Vendors, including Torchio Nursery, were able to open at the San Francisco Flower Mart on April 22. But small flower shops across the Bay Area can't open under Shelter in Place restrictions and are struggling.  (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Mother's Day is the biggest day for flower shop sales — bigger than Valentine's Day. But the sales bump may not come soon enough to save smaller stores already floundering because of the economic slump caused by COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders.

Yuri Kim runs Fractal Flora, a local flower shop based in downtown San Jose's San Pedro Square neighborhood. The shop is so small, it's housed in a converted garage parking space. In early March, Fractal Flora closed off its retail area but allowed people to walk up to the storefront and point out what they wanted from inside.

"And then when shelter in place came into effect [in Santa Clara County], we decided to close down the retail side completely," Kim said.

As weddings across the region were canceled or postponed, their flower orders dried up as well. Kim and co-founder Sarah Lim had to lay off Fractal Flora's six part-time employees.

When social distancing started, San Jose flower shop Fractal Flora sectioned off their shop so customers couldn't enter the space, but could still window shop.
When social distancing started, San Jose flower shop Fractal Flora sectioned off their shop so customers couldn't enter the space, but could still window shop. (Adhiti Bandlamudi/ KQED)

Delivery Only, No Pickups

To move some inventory, Kim partnered with Voyager Coffee, a local cafe in San Jose, where she sold bouquets of lilies, roses and small succulent kits for customers to pick up with their coffee. But a few weeks in, she got a call from the Santa Clara County District Attorney's Office.

"We had been reported for doing these pickups, and it was unauthorized," Kim said. "We had to stop immediately or we would be fined."

On May 4, Santa Clara County announced that it would start easing restrictions, but not for flower shops. Kim can only deliver. She's not allowed to offer curbside pickup. Because she's the only employee left at Fractal Flora, she's left to do all the deliveries herself, even as she receives an influx of orders for Mother's Day.

"I can only do so much, so we're putting a limit on how many orders we can accept," Kim said.


The Wholesale Flower Market

The story is similar for flower shops throughout the San Francisco Bay Area, including wholesalers. Rob Shibata runs Mount Eden Floral Wholesale, one of the largest wholesalers in the region. When shelter-in-place orders were announced, Shibata had to shut down his warehouse.

"We had to dump or give away our entire inventory of fresh flowers," Shibata said. "That was well into six figures of what we had to discard."

On May 4, Shibata was able to finally reopen, but only for delivery. He understands his warehouse is considered non-essential, and he doesn't want the virus to spread further, but he's confident he could maintain social distancing. What's the difference, he wonders, between ordering a pizza versus ordering a bouquet of flowers?

"I think the difference to the government is that it's simpler to make a one-size-all-fits rule, regardless of whether there's a difference in the public health risk," Shibata said.

Select wholesalers in California have been able to reopen for distribution, including the San Francisco Flower Mart, which reopened on April 22, and the Los Angeles Flower Market, which reopened on May 8. Shibata is a vendor at both markets and is happy he can move inventory somewhere.

Roses at Chak Nursery in the San Francisco Flower Mart on May 5, 2020. The market is currently only open to those who are registered badgeholders making purchases for their business.
Roses at Chak Nursery in the San Francisco Flower Mart on May 5, 2020. The market is currently only open to those who are registered badge holders making purchases for their business. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Officials in San Francisco, along with others across the Bay Area, say restaurants are allowed to offer pickup services because people "need calories to survive," according to Gov. Gavin Newsom. But the rules are also about to loosen for retailers.

"You will have the capacity as a retailer to begin to reopen for pickup: clothing, bookstores, florists — with Mother's Day coming up," Newsom said in a press conference on May 4.

But those loosening restrictions don't apply to Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, and the city of Berkeley — non-essential and non-outdoor businesses still can't provide curbside pickup services.

Good News, a Little Too Late

Fractal Flora recently received good news — the shop will receive a $32,000 Paycheck Protection Program loan from Chase Bank. But the store owners must spend 75% of that loan on payroll within eight weeks. Otherwise, the loan won't be forgiven, and she'll be on the hook to pay the interest.

"It's definitely a mixed bag, because, 'Yay, we got the loan!' " Kim said. "But now I'm apprehensive about spending it because I don't know if that loan will be forgiven."

Again, Kim had to lay off her six part-time employees months ago.

"If I can't spend 75% of that loan in two months," Kim said. "I feel like I have no choice but to give it back."

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