For some local businesses, the first day of Stage 2 of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s reopening plan came and went without much change.
The governor’s plan for the first phase of Stage 2 allows nonessential retail operations to begin reopening with curbside pickup and delivery only. State officials hope that by gradually allowing businesses to reopen, parts of the economy can begin returning to normal without a resurgence in coronavirus cases.
Yet, for Dixie Brewer, the owner of the antique and consignment store In Your Wildest Dreams, curbside pickup will not be enough.
“It’s not going to open our doors. It’s not going to pay our rent. It’s not going to do anything for us except to get us to the top of mind,” she said.
Brewer began posting products online yesterday to gauge interest in online orders, but said in her line of work, customers like to view products in person before making a purchase. She noted while many small businesses were suffering, big-box stores that have been deemed essential were doing good business.
“It’s kind of hurtful to go into Target and Home Depot and you can’t get a parking spot,” she said. “But yet we can’t have people that like to collect and browse come into our store, two or three people at a time.”
Other local businesses haven't struggled as much under the governor’s stay-at-home order, but are nevertheless hurting.
Mike Russo, owner of Russo’s Books, said his company’s shift toward online sales several years earlier had positioned it well for life under the pandemic. Operating from a small showroom on New Stine Road, the Russos had already established a framework for online orders.
“When we had the four stores in town, we would have been decimated,” he said, adding that while the business was not thriving, sales had been brisk.
But still, he said he looked forward to a return to normal.
“We need to get the economy moving,” he said. “We need to get both national and local businesses up and going.”
Under the governor’s plan, Kern County could begin reopening the economy faster than the state as a whole if it obtains a regional variance. The variance allows counties that have been less impacted by COVID-19 to reopen certain businesses like destination retail and dine-in restaurants — along with schools and child care facilities — more quickly than areas that have been heavily hit by the virus, like Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Local leaders have expressed strong desire to obtain the variance, yet doing so could prove challenging under the criteria required by the governor.
On Thursday, the California Department of Public Health released guidelines counties must follow if they are to obtain a regional variance. From an ability to shelter 15 percent of homeless individuals to having a minimum daily testing volume of 1.5 tests per 1,000 residents, the guidelines are meant to measure a county’s ability to respond to a coronavirus outbreak after businesses begin returning to normal.
Kern County is ready to meet the guidelines on nearly all the state’s requirements, except two, said County Administrative Officer Ryan Alsop.
The state says counties cannot move deeper into Stage 2 if a coronavirus-related death has occurred within the last two weeks, or the ratio of coronavirus cases exceeds more than 1 case per 10,000 residents over the same time period.
“The governor is moving the goalposts a little bit on us here,” Alsop said.
Alsop explained that, originally, the stay-at-home order was aimed at flattening the rate of infection and ensuring hospital capacity could handle a potential surge in COVID-19 patients. Kern County has done the job hitting those marks.
“We’re not alone,” he said. “Most of the other counties that I have heard from or spoken with also have a pretty significant problem with these two guidance areas.”
Kern County’s coronavirus statistics also are complicated by the COVID-19 outbreak at Kingston Healthcare Center, a 184-bed skilled nursing facility in metro Bakersfield that's seen seven virus deaths, nearly half of the county's 15 total. The facility also had 81 active positive cases as of Friday, according to local and state authorities.
Failure to contain the coronavirus outbreak in the facility would not only endanger clients and staff that live and work there, it could also prevent parts of Kern County more than 100 miles away from moving through the reopening process.
“We want to talk to the governor about how that factors into our ability to accelerate through (Stage 2),” Alsop said of Kingston.
Supervisors are expected to meet next week for an update on the county’s coronavirus response. While nearly everyone acknowledges any kind of reopening must include safety measures to prevent as many future infections as possible, businesses might not be able to survive the pandemic under the current conditions.
“I know there are stores that can’t maintain and they’re not going to reopen,” Brewer said. “We’re hoping to open in May. We all need desperately to open in May. We’re desperate. Everybody is.”