‘Light at the end of the tunnel’

Chico businesses anticipate California economy fully reopening June 15

La Hacienda co-owner Michelle Sereda is trying to ramp up staffing in anticipation of California reopening on June 15. (Photo by Evan Tuchinsky)

It’s Sunday at noon, prime time for a brunch and lunch crowd, yet every table at La Hacienda on a recent April weekend sits empty. Co-owner Michelle Sereda is the sole person on the premises, unlocking the front door only to admit a visitor. Revised hours of operation indicate the restaurant is closed for the day.

This isn’t because patrons have abandoned La Hacienda during the COVID-19 pandemic; Sereda says business has been brisk as of late. In fact, the establishment, in its 73rd year serving Mexican food to Chicoans, has more demand than it can accommodate—and therein lies the problem.

The initial wave of COVID-19 restrictions forced restaurants to stop serving diners indoors and modify takeout to curbside pickup and delivery. At La Hacienda, that cut business 75 percent and led its three employee-owners to reduce staffing. The state has recently relaxed rules to permit half-capacity indoor dining as well as patio service, but as many businesses are now clamoring to hire, the restaurant’s owners have only been able to staff 21 workers, less than half of the pre-COVID total of 56 employees.

As a result, La Hacienda isn’t open Sundays and Mondays, has put bar seating on hold and is running at about 25 percent of its overall capacity.

“We’d love to get back to seven days a week and normal hours,” Sereda said, “but we have to sleep some time.”

She’s hoping that happens by June 15, the date Gov. Gavin Newsom has targeted for fully reopening California’s economy. Sereda echoed other Chico business-owners and leaders in calling that “the light at the end of the tunnel.” Despite their experience previous rollbacks of restrictions during the pandemic, which the state reversed when cases re-surged, they’re optimistic this time due to progress in vaccinating residents—locally and statewide—against COVID-19.

Nonetheless, wider reopening will require adjustments.

“I think the expectation of the customer is it’s like a light switch you turn on and everything is back to normal,” Sereda said. “Unfortunately, we’ve been shut down for a year, so it’s a slow build-up.”

Optimism guarded

Newsom announced that California will ditch the Blueprint for a Safer Economy—and its system of tiers—and reopen fully June 15 provided the vaccine supply remains sufficient to inoculate anyone at least 16 years old and hospitalizations remain “stable and low.” Face coverings will remain mandatory.

Katy Thoma, president and CEO of the Chico Chamber of Commerce, told the CN&R that “there’s a sense of relief” among local businesses about the reopening—“so long as we can keep our numbers down.”

As of Thursday afternoon (April 22), Butte County Public Health had reported 11,478 cases, including 181 deaths, since March 2020 and 10 patients currently hospitalized. Much of California, including Butte County, is in the state’s orange tier—indicating a case rate of 1 to 3.9 per 100,000 residents and a test positivity rate of 4.9 percent or less—and a third of county residents have been vaccinated at least partially, a quarter fully.

Still, since entering the orange tier on March 31, the county has experienced a bump in cases, with infection numbers breaking 100 per week twice after going a full month below that threshold.

“If you notice, people aren’t wearing their masks as readily as they were, even walking downtown when there’s lots of people around, when they would have,” Thoma continued. “We’ve got a lot of people vaccinated now—we’re moving in a really positive direction—so I think people are feeling bolder and more secure, which is great. But they still need to know they need to continue to wear a mask and socially distance where possible.”

Melanie Bassett, executive director of the Downtown Chico Business Association, shares that safeguarded optimism. After shuttering events that bring the public downtown, the DCBA is bringing back—later in spring than usual—Thursday Night Market on May 6 and Friday Night Concerts on May 28.

Katy Thoma, president and CEO of the Chico Chamber of Commerce, stresses diligence with COVID-19 protocols in order to keep the local economy moving in a positive direction. (Photo by Evan Tuchinsky)

“People are very much looking forward to it and very much embracing things opening up,” she said by phone. “I think people are really needing connection, and they’re very excited about that date [June 15] and getting prepared for it. I’m hearing enthusiasm; I don’t know that I’ve heard anything negative.

“There are still folks that are concerned about safety. We are, too—that’s why we didn’t hold any events last year at all. We’re intending to follow the guidelines for whatever [state guidelines are] in place … and encourage people to be courteous and appropriate.”

Financial life jackets

The DCBA itself is an example of pandemic resilience. Bassett said the organization “came close to closing our doors” and has downsized dramatically. Staff is down from five to two; and the office has moved to a “small but serviceable” shared space adjacent to Kirk’s Jewelry.

Likewise, Sereda said La Hacienda verged on closure several times during the height of restrictions. She and fellow owners Margarita Vega and Javier Partida—all with at least 20 years’ tenure at the restaurant—felt heartbroken at the prospect.

“You definitely don’t want to be the end of the generations,” Sereda said. “We’d like to see it go on another 70 years. That’s all of our main objective, and hopefully our children will want to take it over so it will remain a family long-term establishment.”

Chelsea Irvine, community resource manager at the three-county economic development district 3Core, told the CN&R by phone that businesses have myriad means of support. These include grants from government entities and nonprofits; low-interest and forgivable loans; and expertise from agencies such as hers, the Small Business Development Center, Alliance for Workforce Development, North State Planning and Development Collective, and SCORE (Service Corps of Retired Executives).

The North Valley Community Foundation granted more than $1 million so far to bolster local businesses thanks in large part to NFL quarterback and recent Jeopardy! guest host Aaron Rodgers. The Butte Business Stabilization Grant, approved by county supervisors, infused $4.7 million. 3Core is administering locally the California Relief Grant, which has brought $2.6 million to Butte County; the application period for the final round of granting opens Wednesday (April 28).

Meanwhile, on top of payroll protection (PPP) and Small Business Administration (SBA) loans, owners of shuttered arts/entertainment venues and restaurants are about to get sector-specific opportunities from the SBA: Shuttered Venue Operators Grant and the Restaurant Revitalization Fund.

“There’s all these funding sources around,” Irvine said. “With the reopening on June 15, that’s giving businesses more hope. But I think the county being forward-thinking in putting together that [stabilization] grant program, that’s when businesses were [thinking] realistically it’s a year of ‘Can we make it?’—and those $15,000 [to] $25,000 grants were the bridge that got them through.”

Bouncing back

Business at Christian & Johnson Flowers and Gifts slowed during the peak of the pandemic but never stopped. That’s because the state classified agriculture as an essential sector of the economy, and as an ag product outlet, the florist stayed open for deliveries and curbside pickup.

Christian & Johnson owner Melissa Heringer has seen increased interest in special events as more people in the area get COVID-19 vaccinations. (Photo by Evan Tuchinsky)

In 2018, Christian & Johnson relocated from its longtime location on Vallombrosa Avenue to a corner store on East First Avenue, where owner Melissa Heringer enjoyed an uptick in shoppers after the move. Closing the doors to in-person business halted that momentum, but the demand for floral arrangements remained high enough that she retained her entire crew. Restrictions eased last fall, permitting customers back inside.

“Foot traffic was definitely down, because people still weren’t out and about doing shopping like they normally would,” Heringer said. “We have noticed, just in the last month or two, as people have gotten vaccinated and things have started to open up a little bit more, things are definitely feeling like they’re getting back to normal as far as foot traffic goes.

“I feel very optimistic,” she continued. “I’ve had quite a few brides call for consultations. We’re seeing events start to happen again. We’ve even gotten to do events that are out of town. I think people are ready to get back to life as usual, pre-pandemic lifestyles.”

Thoma said retail businesses, such as Christian & Johnson, may face less of a ramping-up process than restaurants. An eatery will need to make significant changes to increase capacity from 50 percent to 100 percent, while stores rarely—if ever—encounter 100 percent occupancy.

Challenging all sectors, though, is staffing. In Butte County, Help Wanted signs and ads abound. The business owners and organizations cite various factors for the scarce job pool: predominantly, supplements to unemployment benefits (which expire Sept. 4); a shrunken college-student population due to Chico State’s remote instruction and COVID-related health concerns about interacting with the public. Some employers dangle hiring bonuses, as much as $1,000, for entry-level positions.

“Business owners are so desperate to get workers,” Thoma said. “It’s very competitive.”

La Hacienda, which typically employs college students as servers, has received an inordinate number of applications from high school students—and Sereda said many adult applicants fail to show for interviews.

Nonetheless, the restaurant owners approach June 15 with “more hope now,” Sereda said, adding this message to customers:

“Be patient. We’ll get there.”

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