Road to Recovery: Main Street Merchants Face Uncertainty in Reopening

Sunny and warm weather drew crowds to Main Street on Saturday, May 16, where people were seen window shopping. Some retailers offered curbside service while others allowed limited numbers of customers to shop inside stores. Photo by Jeannette Andruss

If you visited Main Street this past Saturday, it almost looked like a typical spring weekend in Seal Beach. Under sunny skies, people strolled along the sidewalk, toted shopping bags and ate takeout.

But it’s far from business as usual for many merchants in the heart of Old Town.

“Devastated,” is what Joie de Vivre owner Jennifer Stephen said California’s stay-at-home order to limit the spread of coronavirus has done to business at her gift boutique.

“The first month we made almost enough to pay the rent,” she said, crediting a spike in online sales of scarves popular as face coverings. “But it won’t be enough to pay the rent that much longer,” Stephen added.

Stephen is one of nine Main Street business owners I interviewed recently. Many face similar challenges, have shared concerns and a hope to rebound.

Some had to retool their business model. Others furloughed employees. Many negotiated deals with landlords for a break on the rent. A few were able to get financial assistance through government loans.

“It was scary,” Stacy Johnston, owner of The Studio Seal Beach, said of the sudden shutdown in March. “We went like in a 24-hour period from one business model to a totally virtual business model.”

Johnston shifted to livestreaming her fitness classes but says members want to return to working out in studio. She’s figuring out how to safely make that possible.

Cecilia Cole, owner of the clothing and home goods store Coast Modern, said she felt like a “deer in headlights” when the closure hit.

Cole said online sales, a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan and a break on rent are keeping her business afloat. Right now, health, not bills, are her top concern.

“You can live without money but you cannot live without your health,” Cole said.

As COVID-19 cases stabilize, the state is slowly reopening. Elected leaders and public health officials are trying to curb the number of new cases of the potentially deadly coronavirus while nursing the economy back to health.

In Orange County, there are 4,500 confirmed coronavirus cases and 88 deaths as of May 19. Seal Beach has 15 cases.

For weeks, only “essential businesses” were open, but that’s changing. “Lower-risk” retailers are now cleared to conduct curbside sales.

And more restrictions could be loosened after Governor Gavin Newsom announced this week that counties that meet new criteria can reopen their economies at a faster pace. (It’s unclear if Orange County qualifies.)

This includes the reopening of restaurant dining rooms with modifications. The opening of hair and nail salons, spas and fitness centers could be weeks away.

Mindy Mangan is anxious to reopen Beach Cottage Day Spa on Main Street but fears doing so early will put her state license in jeopardy.

She started working at Pavilions to make ends meet. Her dad is also helping her pay her rent. “If I didn’t have that I would be living out of my car,” she said in a phone interview. “I want to succeed,” Mangan said. “All I can do now is wait.”

Some businesses invested in renovations during the closure.

“We took a gamble and decided to take the time to refresh our first store in Seal Beach,” Candi Anderson, owner of clothing boutique Stitch & Feather wrote in an email.

Anderson said she had to furlough her employees but was able to get a PPP loan to bring them back. She hopes to reopen soon.

The Hangout Restaurant and Beach Bar on the corner of Main Street and Ocean Avenue is also being upgraded. Owner Aaron Kweskin said once the maintenance is done and he’s cleared to open, he’s ready.

“That’s all we want to do is reopen and serve the community and make sure everyone is safe and healthy,” he said.

To keep everyone healthy, Kweskin knows he’ll have to reduce his seating capacity for dine-in service which means he’ll need fewer employees.

“There are going to be jobs lost. That’s just the reality and I hate it,” Kweskin said noting he’s been in touch with his 80 employees.

“I can’t imagine being a profitable business for a while,” Kweskin said. “I’m only hoping to be sustainable.” But he added, “We’re not going down without a fight.”

Select Nail House on Main Street was renovated late last year but now sits empty. “I miss all my customers,” owner Kim Ta said in a recent interview.

She was able to negotiate reduced rent with her landlord, has tapped into savings and has applied for a loan. She said her employees are all healthy.

Kim is confident her business will survive. “I’ve been here for 30 years. I will make it.”

Confusion on Reopening Rules

While surviving the stay-at-home order was the priority for the past two months, business owners are now focused on reopening.

“Business owners are hearing different things from different entities and it causes frustration and confusion,” Seal Beach Chamber of Commerce President Kori DeLeon wrote in an email.

This week, Stephen of Joie De Vivre was offering curbside service to customers. She stood at the door to her shop wearing a mask beside a table filled with sanitizing supplies. While some neighbors were letting a limited number of shoppers inside stores, Stephen was not comfortable doing that.

“I want to play by the rules,” she said but admitted, “They seem to be changing all the time.”

In an email, Seal Beach Police Department Sgt. Nick Nicholas wrote the department is excited for businesses to reopen but emphasized the pandemic is not over. “Social distancing, the use of face coverings, and good hygiene are all encouraged,” he wrote.

Sgt. Nicholas mentioned that a Community Oriented Policing Team will be patrolling Old Town starting Memorial Day weekend. Only one local business has been cited for violating orders, he wrote.

Businesses Seek Guidance

Jennings & Allen, a shop featuring artisan goods from around the world, moved out of its space behind Brita’s Garden during the shutdown. Owner Colvin English is now looking to relocate to a storefront on Main Street. He’s hesitant to reopen without specific guidelines from leaders.

“For us to move forward with a new location, we need clarity on how we can actually open our business safely and that means people coming into our store.”

“Our community is heavily invested in the summer traffic and business owners are uncertain as to when, and how their businesses may open and what protocols will be needed to open safely,” DeLeon wrote in an email.

Last week, the Chamber hosted a webinar with elected leaders and city staff. More than 120 people tuned in and more are being planned.

During the webinar, Les Johnson, City of Seal Beach Director of Community Development, said the city is waiting to see what the Governor does in regard to reopening businesses. The city advised everyone to watch Newsom’s daily briefings for the latest information.

Studio Seal Beach owner Stacy Johnston listened to the webinar and said, given Seal Beach’s size, she hopes leaders can be proactive in helping Main Street businesses reopen. “I’d like the city to take a little more control and really outline a plan for the city,” she said.

A Business Resource and Resiliency Guide is now available on the city’s website. The city is also developing a Small Business Assistance Loan program and a Seal Beach Shop Local Initiative.

Governor Newsom has a 4 phase plan for reopening California’s economy. Orange County is currently in Phase 2. The state suggests retailers “perform a detailed risk assessment and implement a site-specific protection plan” to prepare for reopening.

“The one thing that the city doesn’t want to do is … establish some kind of a long bureaucratic process to get back open,” District One Councilman Joe Kalmick said in an interview.

He suggested business owners ascertain how they can keep customers and employees six feet apart.

There’s also the matter of stores that rely on shoppers being hands-on.

“Items in my store get ‘touched’ quite a bit,” Lisa McHenry, owner of Knock Knock Toys & Gifts, wrote in a statement. “We’ll have to experiment to see what works best for the majority of shoppers.”

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Editor’s Note: This article has been updated from the version that ran in print on May 21 to include a sub-heading that was left out.