Richmond area businesses suffer amid coronavirus outbreak

Richmond area businesses suffer amid coronavirus outbreak
Hotel Mac is one of a number of business reporting reduced foot traffic amid the novel coronavirus outbreak. (Photo credit: Hotel Mac)

By Mike Kinney

Events are being cancelled by the dozens. Workers with symptoms as minor as the sniffles are being asked by employers to stay home. Local schools haven’t closed, but many parents are choosing to keep their kids home. On Monday, BART carried 100,000 fewer riders than on a typical weekday, a 25-percent drop. And many local businesses are suffering from, in some cases, a stark drop in foot traffic.

The impact from the global coronavirus outbreak, today declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization, is being felt in every part of life throughout the nation, including here in West Contra Costa County.

Some of Richmond’s most popular restaurants have seen significant drops in customers since the start of the coronavirus outbreak, believed to have originated in Wuhan, China before spreading globally. At Portumex on 23rd Street, staff member Yenny Castro reported a roughly 50 percent drop in business.

Jaime Molina, general manager and head chef of the iconic Hotel Mac Restaurant in Point Richmond reported similarly significant reductions in diners. Both restaurants say they’re continuing strict hygiene practices in their dining areas, kitchen areas and from their employees to prevent the virus’ spread.

“Being in this industry we always wash our hands and make sure we keep our dining and kitchen areas clean,” Molina said.

It’s not only impacting restaurants. Johnny Rocket, owner of Plug Tattoo & Piercing, reported a 5-10 percent drop in business since the COVID-19 outbreak. The business is also canceling a promotion event this weekend because it may attract over 50 people. On Tuesday, Contra Costa County recommended the canceling and postponing of all gatherings of over 50 people in close proximity.

“It’s really been bad for sales in the last two weeks,” Manuel Martinez of El Sol Furniture on 23rd Street said.”Everybody is scared of the coronavirus and people are not coming in as often to buy.”

Rideshare drivers are also enduring the slowdown.

“What I am experiencing is that many tech and other professionals who used to ride with me, are now working from home and don’t require my service,” said Uber driver Ben Victor.

Victor said he understands the reaction from community members.

“I also worry about people coughing or sneezing when I am driving,” he said. “It is hard to tell who is and is not contagious.”

Not all businesses have reported drop offs. Sam Lee, owner of the popular Philaburger on San Pablo Avenue, and also CJ’s BBQ & Fish on Macdonald, say customers are still coming in.

“The community has been very supportive us during the coronavirus outbreak,” Philaburger owner Sam Lee said, adding, “We spare absolutely no expense when it comes to good clean hygiene.”

Philaburger offered hand sanitizers to customers “long before” the COVID-19 outbreak, Lee said.

Casper’s Hot Dogs Manager Christine Martinez says both customers and sales have been average since the coronavirus outbreak, adding the business also keeps “a very clean shop with bleach and sanitizers” and a public sink for customers to wash their hands before and after they eat.

Josh Speck, owner of Brookvale Pharmacy in San Pablo, said his business has actually increased. That’s because customers are offered free delivery service when their medications are ready.

“So they can feel safe at home and don’t have to leave home and come pick up their orders here,” Speck said.

And at least one church is reporting an increase in attendance. Sunday service at St. Luke’s Methodist Church on Barrett Avenue saw a 15 percent increase in attendance, said Rev. Ofa Haunga. But the church has been vigilant beyond offering hand sanitizers, she said.

“When we greet one another in the passing of the peace during Sunday services we usually shake hands, but with COVID-19 around, we now wave to one another,” the reverend said. “We always have prayer for the victims and prayers for a cure.”

It’s not known how much, or for how long, businesses will endure impacts due to the coronavirus outbreak.

“The virus has and will impact the economy for all businesses,” said James Lee, president and CEO of the Richmond Chamber of Commerce, who postponed a Mayor’s Roundtable event that was scheduled today to be held at CoBiz Richmond.  “But we, as a community, must work together to ensure health and safety for our community. Please wash your hands and avoid crowded places.”

Some wonder how the coronavirus will impact attendance at local government meetings. Since the outbreak, in Richmond there’s been just one City Council meeting and one West Contra Costa Unified School District (WCCUSD) board meeting, both of which received average attendance, said community advocate Don Gosney.

Gosney, however, wondered how many people would show up for the WCCUSD meeting tonight, when teachers and staff plan to hold a protest rally over the potential for layoffs.

While WCCUSD schools remain open, parents at Mira Vista Elementary, where the relative of a student tested positive for the virus, is seeing a significant drop in attendance. Several parents told us they feel schools should be closed during the outbreak.

One thing is for certain. A lot fewer seniors are showing up to local centers. The San Pablo Senior Center cancelled its lunch program, bingo games, socials and St. Patrick’s Day Celebration, according to City Manager Matt Gonzalez. Eggstravaganza at Davis Park has also been temporally cancelled. Similarly, the City of Richmond is cancelling events.