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The Coronavirus Is Serious, and So Is the Threat to Small Businesses

A customer waits to receive his take-out order at Kono’s Cafe in Pacific Beach. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

For the past four months, my family has not been too negatively affected or inconvenienced by the COVID-19 pandemic. My wife and I have been able to keep our jobs, we have a roof over our heads and both of our children have been able to attend daycare. It’s an atypical situation, I realize.

In light of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s announcement of the (re)re-closure of businesses, including in San Diego County, I can only imagine the many families who are now holding tough conversations at the dinner table and having to make some pretty tough decisions.

One of them is a Mira Mesa small business owner of whom I have been a longtime customer. He found the governor’s order very distressing and explained his dilemma to me. The next few days would be spent deciding whether to spend his family’s savings to keep his business open, not knowing when, or even if, he would be allowed to reopen before their savings ran out. Or whether to shut it down now, let his employees go, and find a new job to provide for his family. This was not going to be an easy decision. I can attest to his passion for his business – one he has devoted his life to building, and pouring his blood, sweat and tears into it. He feels terrible about letting his business go and the prospect of having to let go of his employees.

Let’s recap how we got here. More than 150 days ago, we were told the stay-at-home order was implemented to “flatten the curve,” to ensure our hospitals and health care providers would be able to handle a potential influx of patients due to the lack of personal protective equipment and ventilators. It was a matter of life and death. Our frontline employees exhibited heroic acts of bravery and selflessness, and they continue to do so today. For that we are grateful. Since the coronavirus was largely unknown and unfamiliar at that time, I believe the order was, without a doubt, the right call.

Concurrently, small businesses were asked to shut down indefinitely and unemployment skyrocketed.

The city of San Diego stepped up. We did everything possible to assist San Diegans. We passed an ordinance to prohibit evictions, we provided nearly $20 million in funding for small businesses and we identified donors to support childcare for essential workers.

Some of the small businesses crumbled anyway – though not due to a lack of customers. Sadly, they closed because they were forced to by the government. Yet, big box stores were permitted to remain open during the entire shutdown and no one had any issue with that.

As we enter the second half of the calendar year and analyze the data now available to us, we can undoubtedly confirm that we have met the initial goal of flattening the curve. Apparently, we’re “slowing the spread.” Our health care systems are not currently overwhelmed. In fact, California sent 500 state-owned ventilators to other states on April 6 and 317 nurses were laid off from Palomar Health on May 13. (To date, I have yet to hear a peep as to whether those ventilators are returning to California or not.)

Now, it appears the goal has evolved into “we cannot open until we eradicate the coronavirus,” which is both unrealistic and exceedingly unfair to the general public and San Diego.

I know there will be some who read this and think I do not take this pandemic seriously. Some may have a misperception that I do not have compassion for those who have gotten ill from the virus. Nothing could be further from the truth. To say so simply serves as a convenient political narrative to undermine the point I am trying to make.

Let me state my opinion unequivocally: The coronavirus is serious. Wear a mask. Wash your hands. Maintain at least six feet of distance. Stay home if you are among the vulnerable. Stay home if you are sick. Or just stay home.

In return, I ask: Where is the empathy for my friend and the thousands of other families who are having this same difficult conversation? What about the countless other businesses that are on the brink of closing their doors forever? Where is the compassion for the employees who may be losing their jobs? What about the heartache for the 250,000 San Diegans who are currently unemployed and the thousands who may soon join them? Personally, it is very frustrating and heartbreaking to hear their stories.

Not to mention, small businesses account for 98 percent of all San Diego companies. Is this fact taken into consideration when shutting down the world’s fifth largest economy?

As a former small business owner and chair of the city’s Economic Development & Intergovernmental Relations Committee, I take my role of supporting the thousands of regional business owners and employees seriously. This year, the committee’s focus was supposed to be on developing and expanding economic opportunities for San Diegans. Instead, we are desperately trying to save businesses, jobs and all the livelihoods that are attached to them.

I, for one, feel obligated to be their voice. To be their advocate. It is time. It has been time. We must save our small businesses.

Chris Cate is a San Diego city councilman representing District 6.