San Jose businesses, officials worry about prolonged closures
The coffee and sandwich shop At Your Convenience, which regulars know as @YC, recently reopened with new safety procedures and hours amidst the pandemic. Photo by Rachel Leven.

Oanh Turkenkopf and his wife closed their coffee and sandwich shop in San Jose three days before Santa Clara County issued its shelter-in-place order. At 65 and 68 years old, the couple weren’t taking any chances of getting the novel coronavirus.

Three weeks later, with the closure eating into their savings and neighbors asking when the restaurant would reopen, the couple changed their minds. Now, customers pay for and pick up their food all without stepping inside the E. Taylor Street shop — called At Your Convenience — also known as @YC. The “no contact” changes have worked out well, but sales haven’t kept up.

“We can probably go on like this for a couple more months before something’s got to give,” said Turkenkopf, who’s seen @YC’s profits drop by nearly three-quarters in daily business compared to before the virus took hold.

Restaurants providing take-out say they’re struggling to keep their financial heads above water and worry how long this will last. They’re not the only ones concerned. While a longtime business leader called new county requirements that allow sectors like construction to reopen “a good first step,” he said even more industries believe they can operate safely now, too.

“At some point you have to balance the public health risk with the longer-term economic and societal damage that this (pandemic) is causing,” said Matt Mahood, president of The Silicon Valley Organization, the largest Chamber of Commerce in the area.

City leaders also want businesses, from clothing stores to hair salons, to reopen fast. San Jose Councilmember Johnny Khamis urged the county’s health department to do more to advise businesses on how to get back to work safely.

“We get a lot of tax revenue from retail, and a lot of these places are dormant,” Khamis said during a virtual Q&A on Thursday. “The sooner that we can get people back to work, the sooner the city can operate more and its services can come back, as well.”

The county’s revamped stay-at-home order extended most shelter-in-place requirements through the end of May. As of Thursday, the virus has killed 111 people in the county.

‘A scary time’ for local restaurants

The county first ordered people to stay home starting March 17 to limit the virus’s spread.

Some restaurants chose to close even though they were allowed to remain open for take-out, finding it hard to keep up with the latest guidance on how to stay safe from the virus and to obtain all necessary food shipments and materials, like hand sanitizer.

As it became clearer how to limit the virus’ spread, restaurant owners took new safety measures, having staff wear masks and providing gloves to customers to use when picking up orders.

Restaurant owners also cut operating hours and menu items to reduce expenses during this financially tenuous time. Some businesses that usually employ staff became, at least temporarily, family-run operations.

But even with those adjustments, as the country slips into a recession and unemployment numbers skyrocket, fewer customers have returned. Jasmine Rast, the owner of Roy’s Station, said the Japantown coffee shop had a “good showing” when it reopened. Still, she’s worried.

“It’s probably half of what we’d normally make,” Rast said of the shop’s daily business since it opened for take-out. “It’s definitely a very scary time regarding how long this will last.”

Roy’s Station, a coffee shop in San Jose, is struggling to make ends meet amidst the pandemic. Photo by Rachel Leven.

‘Not a scientist’, but hoping for a fast reopening

Other kinds of businesses are changing operations, too, facing similar financial concerns. California Sports Center Co-Owner Dave Peterson in March closed his seven facilities where coaches teach about 6,000 kids gymnastics and other sports weekly.

Since then, his staff has shrunk from 217 employees to 48. Though he’s received a federal loan and has savings, he’ll have to consider downsizing if his gyms remain closed after June.

“I can’t question the science because I’m not a scientist … but I’m gravely concerned for my business,” Peterson said. “Is it more important than people’s lives? No.”

Most businesses in the area are, like Peterson’s, still closed, Mahood said. He often hears from companies that want to reopen and feel they can do so safely — just like grocery stores — but aren’t allowed to try. Those that are allowed to operate are probably doing so at a loss as customers shelter-in-place, he said.

The stakes for these businesses and the city are high, Mahood said. Banks can’t keep up with demand for federal loans intended to keep businesses afloat. That means more bankrupt companies, more unemployed individuals, less sales tax revenue and reduced public services, he said.

Whenever businesses reopen, their and the economy’s recovery will take time, Mahood said.

“This is not going to be a ‘V’-shaped recovery,” he added.

A community vision

San Jose has gone from expecting a $25 million budget surplus to a $45 million budget deficit in the past month. Businesses’ tax revenue and employment will become even more important as the city begins its road to recovery, Khamis said.

And so will the products they provide, he said, quipping, “you can’t get a haircut over Zoom.” He is especially worried for service workers, like housekeepers, living on the margins who can’t return to work. He worries for restaurant workers, too.

The city is assessing the best path to reopen businesses, Khamis said.

“I think we were going to try to adhere to rules that will help us get us back on our feet quicker,” he said.

Meanwhile, as Roy’s Station offers to-go ordering a few days per week, Rast worries about her employees, many students without savings. She worries about who would run things, if she or her mom got sick.

But until there are major changes, like more COVID-19 testing countywide, she’ll stick with her new approach: taking orders at a new plexiglass to-go window, wearing gloves and masks and accepting only credit cards instead of cash. That’s the consensus in the neighborhood, she says. These changes are hard, but they’re necessary.

“Our whole vision for this business is community and keeping Japantown awake, alive and engaged,” Rast said. “I’d rather be safe than sorry.”

Contact Rachel Leven at [email protected] or follow @rachelpleven on Twitter.

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