In the year since Santa Clara County issued its first shelter-in-place order to curb the spread of COVID-19, businesses have faced a rollercoaster of directives — open, close, open and close again.
But one former lawmaker says it doesn’t have to be that way. Other states have less restrictions and allow businesses to open with safety measures — and they aren’t facing more COVID-19 cases or deaths.
“Don’t jerk businesses around every other day,” said Johnny Khamis, who served eight years on the San Jose City Council and is running for county supervisor next year. “If you let them open, let them open permanently.”
Khamis created a petition this week lobbying Gov. Gavin Newsom to reopen businesses permanently. It had garnered 313 signatures as of Sunday.
Khamis said statistics tracking COVID-19 rates across the country don’t show California doing better than other states like Florida and Texas with less stringent measures on closing businesses. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Florida had 8,486 COVID-19 cases and 138 deaths per 100,000 residents since Jan. 21, 2020. Texas had 8,888 COVID-19 cases and 141 deaths, compared with 8,677 COVID-19 cases and 122 deaths in California per 100,000 residents.
In Florida, restaurants, retailers, gyms and personal care businesses are operating at full capacity, though local governments may adopt stricter orders. Any local orders limiting restaurant capacity must quantify the economic impact of each limitation.
In Texas, restaurants, retailers and gyms may operate at 75% capacity, while personal care businesses may operate at full capacity following social distancing.
“If you look across the United States … states that took less draconian measures and kept their businesses open didn’t suffer any more than we did per capita as far as the rates of infection and decline,” Khamis told San José Spotlight.
Khamis is asking that businesses open permanently with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance on how to minimize COVID-19 exposure. “Shutdowns didn’t work for business or to keep COVID rates down,” he added. “I understand the county and state want to do what’s best for the community, but now that we have the experience and statistics, we should do things differently.”
Santa Clara County is currently in the state’s most restrictive purple tier, which means retailers and personal care services, such as hair and nail salons, are open at 20% capacity indoors. Restaurants are open only for outdoor dining, takeout or delivery.
Dan Phan, co-owner of Original Gravity pub, craft cocktail bar Paper Plane and MINIBOSS bar/arcade in downtown San Jose, opened in October when the county allowed indoor dining at 25% capacity. Phan said he spent about $4,000 on a contactless point-of-sale system and adding barriers to keep employees and diners safe.
Then the county shut them down again.
“You spend a lot of money, but you’re not allowed to make any,” Phan said. “We’ve been through this crazy rollercoaster for 12 months, up and down … It’s really tough.”
Phan said one of the hardest parts was laying off people he’d just rehired.
“We’re not sure shutting down businesses has been the right choice,” Phan said. “We just … do our best to survive and make sure we can pay the bills… but we can’t pay any employees and that definitely hurts the economy and downtown.”
As of Feb. 20, Santa Clara County reported 109,000 COVID-19 cases and 1,728 deaths countywide.
Khamis said the “moving target of openings and closures” meant small businesses had to scale up and down quickly while trying to pay rent and make their facilities safe. Many are in debt and others shut their doors permanently.
The push to reopen San Jose businesses comes as Newsom faces a recall effort, driven partially by his response to the COVID-19 crisis this past year. The effort, fueled by Republican donors and activists, needs 1,495,709 valid voter signatures by March 17 to trigger a recall election. Almost 1.1 million signatures have been submitted as of Feb 5, according to the Los Angeles Times.
The organizers, led by Yolo County retired Sgt. Orrin Heatlie, say Californians have lost confidence in Newsom’s leadership. It’s considered the strongest recall effort since the 2003 removal of then-Gov. Gray Davis.
Eddie Truong, Silicon Valley Organization’s director of government and community relations, said the economic shutdown in the South Bay has disproportionately hurt people of color, service industries and blue-collar jobs.
“The longer that we have to endure COVID and shelter in place orders … there will be rising poverty for displaced workers,” Truong said.
Truong agrees with Khamis that a more balanced solution to solving the economic crisis is needed.
“We can’t keep the economy shut down forever,” Truong said. “While we’re saving people’s lives from COVID … we’re forcing our community members into abject poverty, homelessness and mental health challenges.”
Nate LeBlanc, business development manager for San Jose Downtown Association, said many downtown businesses invested in tents, canopies, heaters and lights to offer outdoor dining in the cold. But they’ve faced uncertainty about when they can use them — and been closed abruptly after making such investments.
“We wish businesses had more say in these matters and more notice given when these decisions are being made,” LeBlanc said
David Buchholz, SJDA advocacy committee chair, said downtown restaurants are also hurt by the push to work from home. They relied on foot traffic from daytime workers downtown.
“Until the county provides clear guidance on reopening offices,” Buchholz said, “downtown is going to remain a ghost town.”
Contact Lorraine Gabbert at [email protected]