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A glimmer of home for Petaluma businesses

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The delicate balancing act to reopen the stalled economy while mitigating further deaths from the COVID-19 pandemic is now being played out haphazardly in states and counties across America, with widely-varying policies on exactly how to do it right. Here in Sonoma County, we’ve significantly limited the virus’ spread by staying home, washing our hands frequently, wearing masks and maintaining the prescribed social distancing protocol when out in public.

The downside, of course, is an economy in ruins with tens of thousands of county residents suddenly unemployed, a skyrocketing number of people unable to make rent or mortgage payments and many others unable to put food on the table for their families.

After shelter in place orders went out in mid-March from Gov. Gavin Newsom and Sonoma County Public Health Officer Sundari Mase, thousands of local small businesses were instantly shuttered. Now, many Petaluma business owners say it’s time to begin a safe and orderly reopening of the economy that does not create a second and more deadly wave of coronavirus cases.

Among them is Petaluma native Mike Maddalena, longtime owner of Minuteman Press, who was forced to lay off six of his eight-member staff when his overall revenues suddenly collapsed by 75%. Print shops are considered essential businesses, but because many of his clients are closed, he’s struggling to pay bills and looks forward to a gradual reopening of businesses.

“What’s frustrating for many small business owners,” Maddalena told me last week, “is that we were told about the need to flatten the curve of new infections so as to not overwhelm the health care system. Now that we’ve done that, we want to go back to work.”

Noting that many small business owners have very limited resources to survive even another few weeks, Maddalena fears that “the lasting damage to the economy may well be far worse that what COVID-19 could have done” in terms of increased poverty, hunger, hardship and stress for large segments of the population.

“Are we really better off if everyone is broke?” he asks, noting that time is of the essence to prevent the ongoing recession from becoming a full-blown depression not seen since the 1930s.

Not far from Maddalena’s shop sits one of the city’s oldest businesses, Lace House Linen, where four generations of the Libarle family have been operating the commercial laundry for the last 105 years.

According to Dan Libarle, grandson of founder John Libarle, the business has faced many challenges over the last century, “but I’ve never gone through anything like this.”

Libarle’s daughters, Nicole Marzo and Phoebe Ellis, say their business had to furlough about half its staff. While Lace House is deemed an essential business, most of their customers are Bay Area restaurants and hotels which are now closed indefinitely. As a result, monthly revenues have dropped by more than 70%.

Marzo contends that many local “non-essential” businesses should be allowed to reopen by implementing similar public health protocols currently in place for banks, pharmacies and grocery stores. “If you can go to Target,” says Marzo, “you should also be able to shop at locally-owned businesses.”

Her wish may be coming true, at least partially. On Monday, Gov. Newsom announced that so-called “low risk” businesses including retail stores selling clothing, furniture, books, recreational equipment, toys and more will be allowed to open tomorrow for curbside pick-up, assuming necessary modifications are in place and provided they have met various other criteria expected to be made public today.

This is in addition to the relaxed guidelines put in place earlier this week by the Sonoma County Health Department that allowed the reopening of construction, landscaping, auto sales, florists, golf courses and a few other businesses sectors.

The announcement allowing small retailers to reopen is good news to Jeanette Clarey, owner of J. Fermi clothing store on Kentucky Street, who had to lay off her single employee in March and has since been surviving by taking online orders and personally delivering the clothing to her customers.

“I am ready to reopen,” said Clarey, who told me last week that she doubted her business could survive more than another few weeks of a total lockdown.

Newsom said that the reason some restrictions are being loosened statewide is because the number of new cases of COVID-19 has flattened over the last few weeks, and he credited Californians who have mostly been abiding by the shelter in place orders. But he cautioned that proper testing and tracking of infections, the lack of which necessitated the stay-home orders, must be significantly ramped up to ensure that those carrying the disease are promptly identified for treatment and quarantine.

The opening of two state-funded testing centers on Tuesday, including one at the Santa Rosa Junior College campus in Petaluma, now offer free appointment-only tests to all county residents.

But even with the new testing centers open, the county can only perform 260 tests per day; according to health officials, at least 600 daily tests are needed to effectively track and contain the virus spread so that more county businesses can eventually reopen, including shopping malls, sit-down restaurants, movie theaters, hair and nail salons, gyms and massage parlors.

While the limited reopening of some retail businesses is welcome news, local consumers, particularly those over the age of 65, may want to avoid going anywhere near a store for quite some time. To address such concerns, the City of Petaluma is working with the Petaluma Chamber of Commerce and Downtown Association to launch a new city-wide e-commerce website, www.shoppetaluma.com.

According to the Petaluma Economic Development Manager Ingrid Alverde, the site will soon enable shoppers to patronize their favorite local stores remotely and have products delivered to their homes. The website can help supplement the brick and mortar store sales, she said, and could in the future help Petaluma shops compete more effectively with retail giants like Amazon.

While store owner Clarey said she is open to giving the city website a try, her immediate focus is on how to adhere to the relaxed public health restrictions and begin rebuilding her business which caters primarily to women over 50.

As such, she is acutely aware that state and county government officials are doing their best to balance the need to reopen the economy while avoiding large numbers of people dying from COVID-19.

“If we open up too fast,” she acknowledges, “we’ll all be out of business.”

(John Burns is former publisher of the Petaluma Argus-Courier. He can be reached at john.burns@arguscourier.com.)

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