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By Emmet Pierce

Photo: Creative Commons via Bing

April 27, 2020 (San Diego’s East Count) -- Despite a growing desire to return to life as normal, East County residents and businesses are following the state’s COVID-19 social distancing guidelines, officials say.  But some mayors and local business leaders voice concerns over impacts on the business community from extended closures.

“We have businesses calling all day long wanting to know why we aren’t opening up,” said El Cajon City Manager Graham Mitchell. “If businesses are reported that shouldn’t be open, we check them out. We aren’t taking a heavy-handed position. If there is a business we continually get called about, we’ll issue a citation.”

Mitchell said he knows of no organized protests in El Cajon against social-distancing requirements. Most people understand the dangers of spreading coronavirus, he added. “I think we’re doing a pretty good job as a community.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a stay-at-home order on March 19 that allows only essential businesses to keep their doors open during the pandemic. They include pharmacies, grocery stores, and restaurants that provide takeout or delivery services. As a result, cities are bracing for a steep drop in their sales tax revenues, said El Cajon Mayor Bill Wells. He noted that many merchants are financially stressed.

Staying Afloat

Social distancing “is what we do to keep people safe, but people have to realize there’s a consequence to this,” said Mayor Wells (photo,right). “We have to have a world to go back to. That world includes being able to make our house and car payments and keep businesses afloat.”

Some businesses already may be “past the point of no return,” he added. “It’s scary for society as a whole.”

In neighboring La Mesa, Mayor Mark Arapostathis (photo, left)  said residents have rallied to help each other during the pandemic.

“People, even though they have limited resources, are looking to help neighbors,” he said. “The La Mesa-Spring Valley School District is offering meals every Monday and Wednesday to students and their parents.”

While people are following stay-at-home guidelines, there is a growing eagerness among businesses to reopen. In downtown La Mesa, some shops are nearing the financial breaking point, said Theresa Favro, chair of the La Mesa Village Association. She holds that it would make sense for the state to allow some nonessential businesses to reopen if they could maintain safe social distancing among customers.

“You have a crowded Home Depot and I can’t open my door and have one customer at a time,” said Favro, who owns the Amethyst Moon gift shop on La Mesa Boulevard. “Every day that goes by, I am getting farther and farther behind. We have landlords and vendors to pay. It’s not just me. This is happening to every small business.”

Envisioning a Reopening

Santee Mayor John Minto (photo, right) also has concerns about which businesses have been required to close. He recently appointed an informal committee of local business operators to advise him on the subject of reopening. However, cities have no authority to reject or modify guidelines established by the state and county, he stressed. All local governments can do is offer their input.

“I’ve talked to other mayors around the county,” Minto said. “We’re all frustrated. It’s like we don’t even exist.”

The Santee advisory group has been meeting through video conferencing, Minto said.

 “We have some people who say, ‘We have ideas about how I can get my business back up and running that are safe,” the mayor said. “We want to hear what they have to say.”

Business owners are wondering what kinds of restrictions they’ll face when nonessential establishments finally are allowed to reopen, said Mary England (photo, left), president and CEO of the La Mesa Chamber of Commerce. For example, restaurants that reopen will need to be able to serve enough customers to offset the cost of operations. There has been speculation that social distancing may require them to have fewer tables.

Such businesses “will need to know what the equation is and how it will pencil out for them,” England said. “I believe businesses will accept any of the parameters that are placed on them that are reasonable because they want to be safe. Sick workers cost money. We don’t want a resurgence of the outbreak.”

In Lemon Grove, Mayor Racquel Vasquez said residents are doing a good job of staying home to prevent the spread of the virus. The city is committed to closely following state and county social distancing guidelines, she stressed.

“Right now, for the health and wellbeing of Lemon Grove, coming together means staying apart and the health and safety of our community will always come first,” Vasquez said.  She added, “The power to combat COVID-19 is in our hands and when we get through this we will be stronger and better together.”

Lemon Grove residents and businesses have been compliant, said City Manager Lydia Romero.

“I’d have to say our residents actually are respecting the state and county distancing orders,” she said. “We haven’t had any major issues.”

Relying on Government Oversight

As eager as businesses are to resume operations, Joe Paraiso, owner of Brew Coffee Spot in La Mesa, said reopenings should be monitored by government.

“I think leaving the necessary precautions to prevent the spread of this virus up to business owners is dangerous,” Paraiso said. “So if they do allow more businesses to open, it should be with a clear plan that will protect the workers as well as the public.”

He favors a phased approach that will be guided by the status of coronavirus cases in the community.

Looking forward to a relaxation of social distancing requirements, the Ramona Chamber of Commerce is working on plan to help publicize and promote local businesses when they reopen, said Executive Director Joe Stupar (photo, right, by Mike Raher, Ramona Home Journal). Merchants are hoping that the annual Ramona Country Fair will take place as planned, from July 30 through Aug. 2. The fair will celebrate its 50th anniversary this year.

“We don’t want to open up too early,” Stupar said. “We want to be safe.” 

In the meantime, residents of the rural community are taking care of each other, he said. He noted that one local winery has begun producing hand sanitizer to help meet the need for health care products to combat COVID-19. A local sewing group is producing cloth masks to help prevent the spread of the virus.

“We tend to stick together,” Stupar said. “It’s a good place to live.”

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