Small Businesses Fight to Survive Amid COVID-19 Chaos

by Jessie McKenna

Gov. Jay Inslee announced on Sunday an emergency proclamation ordering closure of many businesses across the state ranging from bars and restaurants to gyms and recreational venues through at least March 31. A similar order was issued by King County Executive Dow Constantine in accordance with the statewide mandate.

The closures apply to taverns, restaurants, coffee, ice cream, and donut shops, food courts, salons and barbers, fitness centers, museums/galleries, youth sports clubs, and more. Although no dining-in service is allowed, restaurants and cafes can continue to provide drive-thru, take-out, and delivery services — good news for businesses that either already offer to-go orders or that can shift their business model swiftly to meet demand in this crisis time.

Makeshift signage on the front door at The Station coffee shop informing customers of immediate changes to the business. (Photo: Jessie McKenna)

Grocery stores, pharmacies, banks, hardware stores, and other retail outlets can remain open if they maintain stringent Seattle & King County Public Health prevention guidelines. Events of groups over 50 people are also now banned, and organizers of those with fewer than 50 attendees must also follow strict Public Health directives.

On March 6, less than two weeks ago, the Emerald published How Southeast Seattle Small Businesses Are Coping With COVID-19 — and to say the situation has evolved rapidly since then is an understatement. Many businesses and their employees have were impacted in myriad ways even prior to the latest government mandates. Some businesses were forced close before the March 16 order was even issued. With the public being told from every official source essentially to stay home unless absolutely necessary, brick and mortar businesses and those that rely on events (like caterers)—in particular—are getting hit hard by the fallout from this pandemic, as are a massive number of employees who work in the industries most affected by it.

When we spoke with Bridget Collins at The Royal Room on March 5, she said that she had not noticed a change in business at the bar, restaurant, and music/entertainment venue—no fewer patrons than normal, no drop in revenue. But within one week, on March 12, The Royal Room had announced its closure through the end of March. The closure was out of an “extreme caution for our community,” said a letter posted to their website. Along with the closure, the letter announced a fund set up for employees through an existing Royal Room nonprofit, the South Hudson Street Music Project (SHMP). All donations made to the SMHP through the end of March will go directly to supporting affected staff.

The Royal Room (via The Royal Room on Facebook)

Co-owner and local musician/performer Wayne Horvitz told the Emerald via email that though he hopes to reopen as soon as possible, reopening in April is probably optimistic. Horvitz says they’ve lost revenue, though how much, he doesn’t know. “A lot,” he says. But they’ll do what’s necessary to get by, including  taking out loans, and he seems sure the business will survive. But, says Horvitz, the staff needs help now. They’re trying to get unemployment, but the fund will provide aid to their most vulnerable employees, presumably sooner than they can get a financial lifeline from the government along with countless others out of work.

Of the news of the statewide closures Horvitz says, “We at The Royal Room are very pleased at the Governor’s announcement.” They think it’s good public policy and that “taking the long view is what these times call for.”

Emily Zhao, owner of Little Chengdu on Rainier Ave., who the Emerald spoke with on March 5, also says that while it’s a huge decision to close businesses, it’s the right move. Her restaurant is open for pick-ups and delivery (available via UberEats and Grubhub) and, she says, they’re giving away random gifts with every order.

Zhao’s outlook is pragmatic and optimistic under the circumstances. Businesses, she says, should try to make a “losing situation” an opportunity to learn, grow, and become stronger. It’s a good time to upgrade menus and food and “rethink ourselves,” says Zhao. “Now is not the money-making time,” she says. Whether it’s one order or 100 orders a day, Zhao says, Little Chengdu will be there to take them if they can. She’s committed to filling orders using the highest possible standards. Safety is a primary concern. She’s grateful for new and returning customers.

Max Heigh of Sam Choy’s Poke to the Max, who we also spoke to ahead of our last article on the impacts of COVID-19 on small businesses, gave us an update on his restaurant. “I had to lay-off my food truck team … ” It was a tough decision, says Heigh. He says the restaurant chain has a great customer base and they appreciate those who are coming out. He says that while they’ve been seeing a increase in online sales, “ … it’s a double-edged sword, because both UberEats & Caviar take a 30 percent cut,” which he says, in many cases, leaves a small business not much (or any) profits. Sam Choy’s Poke to the Max has an online ordering platform that they prefer people to order from, but says most customers are looking for delivery.

Hong Chhuor of King Donuts says since we last spoke to him, business has been erratic. Some days, they sell out of donuts early, because he says, “ … a few good community members are raising awareness about supporting local small businesses via social media.” Other days, they end the day with an abundant supply. King Donuts continues to see less foot traffic. Many of their customers are students and their families (Seattle Public Schools were ordered to close until at least April 24). “We are definitely going to feel the pinch,” Chhuor says of schools being closed for another six weeks. King Donuts also serves Thai food and teriyaki and, fortunately, most of their food orders are already carry-out, so Chhuor remains optimistic.

“Let’s hope these measures make a meaningful dent in the new (identified) infection rate so we try to make up some lost ground and return to normal … and hopefully soon,” says Chhuor.

Jack Chung’s son owns Seward Park Market. The Emerald found him behind the counter helping to prep some deep-fried goodness in the shop’s small kitchen, which is in full view to customers. He says the convenience store has not seen much of a decline in customers, but like so many retail shops, their patrons bought up their supply of hand sanitizer and rubbing alcohol and had all but cleared them out of toilet paper and paper towels when we spoke with him on Saturday. He tried to get more toilet paper at the Costco Business Center in Fife he says, but not only were they out of stock, things were chaotic at the store with long lines and people fighting over spaces in a lot that usually has ample parking. He’s not sure when they’ll be able to get more. Many local retailers are still struggling to keep popular items of late stocked.

Emotions were bittersweet when the Emerald caught up with Luis and Leona Rodriguez, owners of popular PoC-owned coffee house and community hub The Station. With the help of Leona’s mom, the two were unloading supplies from a car parked out front, which seemed like a good sign. But the small crew had just come from Luis’s brother Oscar’s Mexican restaurant and bar, Baja Bistro—just three blocks from The Station—where Oscar et al were clearing out supplies his business can’t use due to its closure that began that day. Some of the items he gave to his family to use at their business, which remains open.

The Station has moved to a take-out model, which it turns out works pretty well for a coffee shop. They’ve had a steady flow of customers throughout the day. For Oscar and Baja Bistro, a take-out only model is not an option, Leona says, though she didn’t ask her brother-in-law why. But, she notes, “Coffee is easy.” For the primarily dine-in restaurant and gathering space for the local LGBTQI+ community that is Baja Bistro, it’s another story.

In addition to beverages, The Station will make their signature sandwiches, but only if they have more than one employee working, says Luis. Otherwise, he said, probably not (unless business is slow). Like so many businesses, they’ve had to cut staff hours as a result of the pandemic. Luis and Leona are giving some of their own shift hours to their employees. Luis wants their staff to be able to offer the extra hours to each other and move shifts around as needed amongst themselves. Says Luis, “I want them to figure out what works for them.” It’s clear that among South End business owners, the concern for the well-being of their employees is a high priority.

By now, most people have heard the refrain “Order take out! Buy gift cards!” These are excellent ways to support businesses that offer those products and services. Also consider food you can pick up and make at home (or freeze for later) like Lil Red’s smoked lunch meat, Jamaican patties, pot pies, and lumpia. Lots of restaurants and cafes also offer merchandise. Cafe Red is having a sale on rain jackets, coffee bags, hot sauce, baseball caps, travel mugs, and other items (they also have a “contactless” food, drink, etc. order pick-up system!).

Cafe Red ball cap, on sale now at the cafe. You can make “contactless” pick-up orders!. (Image via Cafe Red on Facebook.)

Many businesses outside of the restaurant industry, in an impressive display of agility, are changing their business models to respond to the changing needs of the community. Some local gyms and yoga studios have shifted gears amid the COVID-19 outbreak, offering streaming workouts and classes. South Seattle Fitness on mid-Beacon Hill is among them. When Curt Ligot of Roundbox Fitness further north at Beacon Ave and S. Columbian Way learned that he’d have to close his gym, he said he’ll shift to remote classes and look into other options as well.

So in addition to ordering take-out, buying gift cards/certificates—from restaurants, retailers, service providers, and Ark Lodge Cinemas—and buying branded merch and making purchases from local retailers online, look for opportunities to join classes and gather with the community virtually (for your mental and physical health as well as that of the local economy). And folx, let’s not forget about our arts community! Check out the The Quarantine Sessions on Facebook, where local artists are sharing/selling their work, performing for viewers, and accepting donations. Consider also donating to the Artists Relief Fund.

Here’s a link to an incredible crowd-sourced spreadsheet of local PoC-owned restaurants with info about their take-out and delivery options being updated regularly by some wonderful community members (maybe you want to be one of them?).

Mayor Durkan signed an executive order last week to formally begin implementation of a small business relief package in the wake of COVID-19 that includes the following: an expansion to the existing Office of Economic Development Small Business Stabilization Fund, an emergency fund for small businesses who qualify; deferment of B&O taxes (business and occupation)—for businesses that make $5 million or less—until late 2020; “direct technical assistance” with Small Business Association loans; and finally, the creation of the Small Business Recovery Task Force, which will provide technical assistance and outreach in addition to policy recommendations.

According to the mayor’s website, the expanded Small Business Stabilization Fund will “focus outreach on historically underserved small businesses who may be overlooked by the federal government’s Small Business Administration (SBA) disaster relief program.”

Employees affected by the pandemic might find this resource guide from United Way of King County useful. One of the resources in their list is the Employment Security Department of Washington, which has put in place emergency rules in order to aid those affected by COVID-19. Learn more about that here.

Patrons enjoying the sunshine and some Outsider Pizza on Plaza Roberto Maestas on Beacon Hill on 3/16/20, the day Gov. Inslee announced restaurant and other business closures. (Photo: Jessie McKenna)

One thing is for certain in these very uncertain times, and that’s the power of community and the invisible bonds that tie South Seattleites to one another — the very same that appear to be ever present despite our diligent “social distancing.”

Jessie McKenna lives in the Beacon Hill neighborhood.