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Concerns From A Small Business Owner During The Pandemic

Jenee Darden
Small business owners in the Fruitvale District have concerns as some reopen.

Gov. Newsom announced in-store shopping can resume. County health officials in parts of the Bay Area haven’t approved this yet. We visit Oakland’s Fruitvale District to hear non-essential small business owners’ concerns and how they’re surviving.

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Travel back with me in time to my first day reporting in the field, and actually interviewing people in person during quarantine. It’s almost Mother’s Day weekend and I’m in the Fruitvale District. I put on my coronavirus armor before leaving the car: gloves, mask and a long boom pole with a mic attached. That’s so I can interview people from six feet away in 80-degree weather. It is not fun.

I walk by all of the mom-and-pop stores and notice it’s almost business as usual around Fruitvale. Some stores are closed. But I see some people popping into the shoe stores and getting their hair done. Dress and furniture stores are open too. Which is strange, because this is days before Alameda County officials announced non-essential retail businesses can open. 

Understandably, business owners don’t want to be interviewed. It’s hard to convince them and my mask isn’t helping. 

Finally, I meet Ledy Ordoner. She sells colorful hand-made jewelry at Ecuador Imports, across the street from the fruitvale bart station. She says times have been tough and she needs to open her stand. 

“I don’t have money,” says Leddy. “I have no money for rent, for nothing.” 

Leddy tells me her husband is the only one working in their household. After she goes back to her stand, I think about how some people have shamed non-essential small business owners for operating prematurely. I understand it’s out of concern for people’s health and safety. On the other hand, there are people like Leddy who are barely surviving. 

Even before the pandemic, folks around here have been struggling with the higher cost of living. Rent prices in this area have surged 83 percent in the last 15 years, while the median household income is $35,100. 

I keep walking, dragging the boom pole. Many people aren’t wearing masks. I wonder if it’s the heat. I’m concerned given the high infection rates for COVID-19 in this area and other parts of East Oakland.

I reach Tony Rossi & Sons Florist and meet the owner Mauricio Vivas. He’s busy getting ready for Mother’s Day, but we step outside to talk. The flower shop has been here for 70 years. 

Mauricio says, "I started working here when I was 17 years old. I worked my way up and then we bought the business from the previous owner."

"They have money to go to war. They should have money to pay your electric bill, your water bill."

He just re-opened his shop before Alameda County health officials gave retailers permission for store-front pickups. That’s because the governor allowed florists to open. Which is confusing, because the county is moving slower than the governor.

In his 23 years of working in the flower business, nothing could prepare him for this pandemic. 

“It’s been a really tough time,” says Mauricio. “I just got a 15-day notice for my water bill.”

His bill is $600 total for the past two months. 

He says, “I'm not going to pay his month, but I have to pay it next month. And where's that extra money going to come from?”

Mauricio says although Mother’s Day weekend is a big time of the year for the business, they’re not even making 40 percent of their normal sales. And with graduations and large events being canceled- the future doesn’t look much better. He wants the government to do more and wishes leaders thought the quarantine through. 

He says, “A governor, a president can’t just say, ‘Shut your door. Don't work.’ Then what are we going to eat? What are we going to do to survive?” 

Mauricio also says government leaders should’ve thought more about how to reopen businesses because curbside pickup doesn’t work well for his flower shop. 

“It's hard when you tell people you can’t come in, just tell me what you want. The first thing people say, ‘Well, I want to look at your flowers and see what I want.’”

I ask Mauricio if he applied for government assistance to get him through. Like an emergency federal loan for small businesses struggling during the pandemic. He says he didn’t qualify for the Paycheck Protection Program. As for others, he answers, “No, when I applied for the loans, they were all gone.” 

Before I go, I ask him what he would say to those who don’t want non-essential businesses to re-open 

He says, “People are thinking you're greedy and, you want to make money. But the reality is big companies are still making money. Politicians are getting paid. So I'm talking for people that have to work daily to make it. If I didn't have to, I wouldn't be here because I have kids. I don't want my kids to get sick or myself.”

Follow-up with Mauricio 

Two weeks later, The county gave retail shops permission for curbside pick-up. I give Mauricio a call and ask him how’s the business going. 

He responds, “Business, it's okay. We’re down 50 percent of orders. Most of our orders are being placed through either the phone or a website. Prior to the closure of the shops, we had a lot of walk-in customers and those are the ones that we need back. Those are the people that make the other half of our business.”

I ask if he’s caught up on his bills, especially that $600 water bill.

He says, “Well, I got my first 48- hour [turn-off] notice today, Go figure. I have a flower shop without water. That's going to be fun.

But Mauricio says with more people venturing outside their homes, he’s staying optimistic. 

“We have very loyal customer support,” he says. I know they'll be coming around. We'll be okay.

Mauricio says he’s going to contact the water company for assistance and look for financial resources through the City of Oakland. 

Jeneé Darden is an award-winning journalist, author, public speaker and proud Oakland native. She hosts the weekly arts segment Sights & Sounds and covers East Oakland for KALW. Jenee has reported for NPR, Marketplace, KQED, KPCC, The Los Angeles Times, Ebony magazine, Refinery29 and other outlets. In 2005, she reported on the London transit bombings for Time magazine. Prior to coming to KALW, she hosted the podcast Mental Health and Wellness Radio.