A glimmer of home for Petaluma businesses
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.