EAST COUNTY BUSINESSES HAVEN’T LOST HOPE DURING COVID-19 PANDEMIC

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By Emmet Pierce
 
Photo, left: La Mesa’s historic downtown village, courtesy of La Mesa Village Association 
 
April 15, 2020 (San Diego’s East County) -- East County businesses are making the best of a challenging situation as they look for ways to stay afloat during the COVID-19 pandemic.
 
“The people I’m talking to are in pretty good spirits,” said Theresa Favro, who chairs the La Mesa Village Association’s governing board. “We’re looking forward to getting our doors open and our neighborhood back. Each day we are getting closer to the ending.”

Many area businesses are seeking emergency government aid during the pandemic, said Nathan Cornett, president of the San Diego East County Chamber of Commerce (photo, right). 
 
“I don’t know of a single owner who isn’t applying for some sort of assistance from the state or federal government,” he said. “The banks are saying, ‘You’re in the queue. We have your application. Good luck.” 
 
Many businesses are relying on their savings to make ends meet, said Mary England, president and CEO of the La Mesa Chamber of Commerce (photo, left). “It is devastating. We have to get the economy back when it’s safe, and it’s not safe yet.”
 
No one is certain how long it will take for businesses to bounce back, said Jo Marie Diamond, president and CEO of the East County Economic Development Council.  A big concern is “how to pick it all up and get going again,” she explained. “We will get through this. We are strong. But it will be painful in the short term.”   
 
Using the Internet
 
Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a stay-at-home order to slow the spread of coronavirus on March 19. Only essential businesses, such as pharmacies, grocery stores, takeout-and-delivery restaurants, and banks, are allowed to operate. Many merchants who have closed their doors have turned to the Internet to reach their customers.
 
Merchants “are having to learn how to do business online keep the wheels moving without having face-to-face contact,” Cornett said. 
 
Judi Smith, who operates Shuwee, a new and used furniture and accessories store in La Mesa, said she won’t let the pandemic derail her lifelong goal of owning her own business. She considers the pandemic to be merely “a bump in the road.” Smith and her husband opened their doors in October. Since closing in mid-March the couple has accelerated efforts to do business online. 
 
“We also are active on Instagram and the other social media sites,” Smith said. “This is an emerging capability and will take months to see results, but is a step forward.”
 
LaDreda P. Lewis, CEO of 40 Acres and A Mind, Inc., has responded to the pandemic by increasing online instruction services at Sylvan Learning of La Mesa. The business offers tutoring, coaching, and test preparation services.  
 
“We plan to add virtual to our program offerings when the center reopens,” she said. “We are utilizing social media, text messaging, and emails more efficiently. Most important, we have established great relationships with our families, old and new, in a way that will be long lasting.”
 
Another company that has turned to the Internet to better connect with customers is Dream Life Total Wellness in La Mesa.
 
“We now offer direct in-home cooking coaching from our kitchen to yours through Facebook live,” said Vice President Scott Currey. “People sign up, let us know what they want to cook and then we are there to coach them while they cook.”
 
Anticipating the Return to Normal
 
Favro expects most La Mesa Village businesses to survive the pandemic. Within the city’s historic business district, merchants are pinning their hopes on reopening in time for La Mesa’s annual Oktoberfest celebration. The three-day event typically attracts more than 100,000 people.
 
Favro noted that some commercial landlords have been giving merchants a break on their monthly rent. 
 
“They don’t want to lose their tenants,” she said. “We’re promoting each other, and encouraging people to guy gift certificates from their favorite businesses to help them out. Everyone is just holding their breath right now. Those who can be open are open. Those who can offer goods and services are doing it.” 
 
Officials at the Grossmont Center and Parkway Plaza shopping malls could not be reached for comment. 
 
England said merchants at Grossmont Center will have an advantage when the stay-at-home order is lifted, since the mall hosts many special events that draw in consumers. 
 
(Photo, left by Miriam Raftery: Grossmont Center, before the COVID-19 shutdown)
 
She worries most about the mom-and-pop businesses and sole proprietors, because many lack the savings to weather several months without income. Even during the best of times, running a small business isn’t easy, she stressed.
 
Risky Business
 
 “The biggest risk taker in society is the small business person,” England said. “Every morning they kiss their family goodbye and go to their shop never knowing if the cash register will ring.”
 
Lakeside Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Kathy Kassel (photo, left) is hopeful about the ability of businesses to recover from the current slowdown. People are resilient, she said. 
 
“Lakeside people get things done and help people without being asked,” Kassel said. “They are strong. I have every faith that we all are going to bounce back. Everybody to some extent is feeling the hurt.”
 
Lending a Hand
 
Chris Wiley, chairman of the Alpine Chamber of Commerce’s governing board (photo, right), said his organization is spreading the word about which local businesses remain open. He is concerned for the wellbeing of workers who have been laid off. Some businesses are taking on debt in order to survive the pandemic. 
 
“You need to be able to keep the businesses solvent, so when you open again you can have those jobs back,” Wiley said.
 
Although Alpine’s business district is largely closed, there’s still a great deal of foot traffic, he said. There is a growing desire to return to life as it was. 
 
“I see many people out with their families, walking up and down the boulevard, getting exercise and waving to their neighbors. Everyone is sick of sitting inside.” 
 
Because of the pandemic, local residents have gained a new appreciation for businesses they once took for granted, Wiley said. 
 
One of the positive things about the crisis is that it has brought East County residents together, England observed.
 
“Everybody is making a sacrifice,” she concluded. “We are all in this together.”
 

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