Income plummets for West Marin businesses

04/01/2020

Many West Marin businesses are in a financial freefall as a result of the Covid-19 shutdown, leading to mass layoffs and economic uncertainty.

Owners are furloughing employees and spending savings to stay afloat, but with the length of the shelter-in-place order and its aftereffects unknown, these are stressful times to own a small business. Some have closed their doors, while others hope to persist with skeleton crews, takeout menus and online sales.

The forced closure comes at an unfortunate moment: Businesses expect an uptick in customers at this time of year, with spring break and better weather bringing more visitors. Already-tight margins are now negative, and owners are worried about paying rent and insurance.

For some, that means making the tough call to let employees go, which creates a ripple effect: When businesses lay off workers, those workers spend less money, so businesses end up with fewer sales. It’s a vicious cycle that starts with the lowest earners losing their jobs.

Still, some are finding silver linings. Many business owners are feeling community support and coming up with creative ways to connect with customers. They’ve shown incredible good will, in some cases by supporting employees who aren’t working. A few landlords, like at the Emporium and the Creamery buildings in Point Reyes Station, are waiving April rent for tenants. The federal government’s massive stimulus package will provide small business loans and increased unemployment benefits.

Businesses have fared better or worse depending on their purpose. Shops, galleries and bars were forced to close when the shelter-in-place order took effect, and hotels and inns saw mass cancellations. Some restaurants have stayed open for delivery or takeout, but they are making just a fraction of their regular sales. Grocery stores are seeing erratic business, with customers hunting for a few goods that are difficult to keep on the shelves. 

“The biggest part of all of this is the uncertainty and the anxiety that surrounds it. It’s really intense and, to be honest, it’s crippling,” said Ted Wilson, the owner of the William Tell House in Tomales. 

Mr. Wilson laid off 12 employees after all of his wedding rehearsals and room rentals were canceled. As a small gesture, he is ordering groceries for them, and he is hoping to hire them back later. But without tourists supporting him on the weekend, he’s worried about his property tax bill due on April 10. He’s doing takeout, but it’s actually costing him more than it’s making. Still, as one of the only restaurants in town, he feels a responsibility to serve food.

Christian Caiazzo, the owner of Osteria Stellina and Toby’s Coffee Bar, said sales are down 95 percent at his restaurant in Point Reyes Station. Doing takeout is “like putting a band-aid on a major, profusely bleeding injury,” he said.

He had to lay off 30 employees and the three who remain are working half as much as usual. He’s especially feeling the pain after a terrible fall and winter that brought closures due to power outages and reduced crowds as a result of fire and smoke. When he reopens, it will likely be with a simpler menu.

Sheryl Cahill, the owner of the Station House Café and Side Street Kitchen, has started a fundraiser for $35,000 to pay for her employees’ health insurance through June. Sales are at 10 percent of normal for this time of year.

“We are fighting tooth and nail to keep this business alive, but our biggest concern at this time is our employees who are now out of work,” Ms. Cahill wrote. “Honestly, if we are unable to pay these premiums, I’m not sure what the next step for them will be.”

The owners of Bovine Bakery have also started a fundraiser for $5,000 to help employees with their living expenses. 

At the Saltwater Oyster Depot in Inverness, owner Luc Chamberland laid off 17 employees. He’s negotiated deferred payments for rent, insurance, booking platforms and his leased dishwasher. He’s applying for a disaster assistance loan, but that is costing him several thousand dollars for his accountant to prepare. When he reopens, it will be with a 30 percent cheaper menu and more comfort food. “The luxury component is going to disappear,” he said. “It’ll be more basic."

The particularly hard hit taken by the lodging sector impacts all visitor-serving businesses. When visitors to Marin stay overnight, they spend $147 on average per person, compared to $59 when they come for the day, according to a study by the Marin Convention and Visitors Bureau. The shelter-in-place order allows for businesses to provide shelter to needy individuals, but overnight guests should not be vacationing in Marin.

“From a hospitality standpoint, pretty much everything has come to a standstill,” said Mark Essman, the bureau’s president. He doesn’t see economic activity in West Marin returning to normal until airline traffic picks back up. Businesses with healthy savings and strong credit are more likely to survive, he said. 

For Donna Larkin, the owner of the Abalone Inn in Inverness Park, this shutdown was the nail in the coffin after 22 years in business. She has ceased nightly rentals in favor of monthly tenants. Reservations were already low due to the rise of short-term rentals, she said, but this standstill cemented her decision.

Andrew Howard, the owner of the Cottages at Point Reyes Seashore, is dipping into his retirement while he finds work for his employees. He and his wife, Susan, turn 70 this year. Their 20 cottages would typically be full right now; instead, last weekend they had just two guests here to be with their parents. Mr. Howard is especially worried about his mortgage and a $20,000 property tax bill due next month.

Normally when businesses have slower traffic, it’s a good time to catch up on maintenance or upgrades. But with no income, those projects have to be small, Mr. Howard said. For now, he is re-photographing his rooms and building his website. Frank Borodic, the owner of Olema’s Inn at Roundstone Farm, is replacing some wallpaper and improving his driveway.

“It’s tough. Small businesses, we don’t have a lot of fat in our system,” said Mr. Borodic, who is also the president of the West Marin Chamber of Commerce. “The longer this goes, the tougher it gets for us, and it just trickles through the economy.”

He’s thinking about his gardener and housekeeper, to whom he is hanging onto for as long as he can. Once they are furloughed, they will be far less likely to spend, harming the local economy from the bottom up. 

“To kill the virus, it’s almost like you have to kill the economy,” he said. Still, he is hopeful that after the shutdown, business will spike because of pent-up demand.

Although many people will have thinner wallets after this crisis, Bill Wigert, the co-owner of Black Heron Inn, thinks West Marin provides an affordable niche for stir-crazy Bay Area residents. Upper middle-class vacationers who would normally go to Hawaii, Mexico and Europe will opt for a smaller vacation in Point Reyes, he said. Even after the Great Recession, he continued to have business.

“My real big worry is the people who are working the low-paying jobs out here, the Latinos, the waitresses and waiters,” he said. “I hope that the federal and state government will really work to reduce the pain for those people.”

Some merchants that were forced to close are mitigating their losses by pivoting to online sales. 

Point Reyes Books has over 350 orders to fill, owner Stephen Sparks said. That makes up for about half of his in-store sales, and he’s still paying employees to stay at home. The store has raised money through its community-supported bookstore program, which allows shoppers to put money in an in-store account to spend later.

The bookstore has also launched its Book Angels program, which normally runs around the holidays to buy books for students. Already, over $2,000 has been donated, and the first round of books is set to go out with student lunches next week.

The bookstore is keeping an online presence by having poets and friends record themselves reading a poem that is posted on social media. The daily readings have been a hit, Mr. Sparks said.

In Stinson Beach, Kelsea Kirsch is no longer selling candles, denim jackets and sage at her shop, Sacred Tide. She hasn’t fully absorbed what it means to close her doors. She takes pride and care in curating her shop to match her aesthetic, and that can’t be reflected online. She will try to grow her website during the shutdown, but online sales are typically less than 10 percent of her business.

“If this were to last more than a month or two, I would be worried about making rent and being able to sustain the shop,” she said. “But I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to open our doors at some point here. I’m kind of banking on that.”

Help is on the way for small businesses and laid-off employees. In the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act passed by the United States government, $350 billion is allocated for small-business loans, which could be forgiven if the loan is used to retain employees. Another $10 billion is allocated for grants of up to $10,000 to cover immediate operating costs for small businesses.

For people who are laid off, the bill adds $600 per week on top of state unemployment assistance, while also making it easier to qualify. California’s weekly benefit is between $50 and $1,300 each week, depending on earnings, and the state has waived its usual one-week waiting period.

All taxpayers who make under $75,000 will receive a one-time cash payment of $1,200 as part of the stimulus, plus $500 per child under age 17. Under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, parents can receive 10 fully paid sick days and up to 12 weeks of partial pay when they can’t work because their child’s school or childcare center closed.

The county is relying on state and federal government programs to support small businesses, Supervisor Dennis Rodoni said. Marin will partner with nonprofits when possible, and small fees, like for inspections or business licenses, could be waived. But the county can control very little as far as taxes go, he said. 

The April 10 property tax deadline can only be waived by the State of California, director of finance Roy Given said. About 120 agencies rely on the $225 million in outstanding property taxes.

The finance department will newly allow property owners to apply for a fee waiver for financial hardship due to Covid-19. Taxpayers can find a one-page form online in which they explain their inability to pay.

“It’s important to keep our services up and running,” Mr. Given said. “At the same time, it’s really difficult to deal with those individuals who are having a hard time at this point because of the pandemic.